Middle East update: August 22 2018


Hayat Tahrir al-Sham boss Abu Mohammad al-Julani made a rare public statement on Wednesday, promising to fight any Syrian government attack on Idlib and warning that any rebel group that surrenders to Damascus will be guilty of “treason.” Meanwhile, during a visit to Jerusalem Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said that the US is prepared to “respond” if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons in Idlib. The Syrian government has of course denied ever using chemical weapons, and also it’s not clear where Bolton’s (Trump’s) red line is. Would chlorine gas prompt a US retaliation? Or are we holding out for nerve gas?

Bolton also said that the Russian government “would be content” with Iran getting out of Syria. He said that Russian President Vladimir Putin told Trump as much during their Helsinki summit last month. You’ll note here that “would be content with Iran getting out of Syria” is not the same as “wants Iran out of Syria” and does not suggest that Russia is prepared to do anything to push Iran out, let alone that Russia actually could push Iran out if it wanted. According to Bolton, Putin proposed a joint US-Russia effort to force Iran out of Syria, but meanwhile publicly the Russians continue to extol Iran’s presence there.

In a rare moment of candor the Russian defense ministry on Wednesday acknowledged that its role in Syria has been more extensive than it typically lets on:

The ministry said Wednesday that over 63,000 Russian troops, including 434 generals, have fought in Syria and about 90 percent of Russian combat pilots have flown in Syria.

The Russian government has tried to downplay the risk its soldiers are under and has gone so far as to use private contractors to add a layer of deniability to some Russian casualties.


The United Nations issued another warning on Wednesday about the possibility of a “third wave” of cholera striking Yemen. Aid workers have vaccinated hundreds of thousands of Yemenis over the past several months, but the war continues to make medical access difficult and the coalition air campaign continues to destroy water and sanitation facilities.


The two men who fired gunshots at the US embassy in Ankara earlier this week were apparently drunk. What a shocker.

In light of the lira’s ongoing struggles, journalist Esther Owens looks back at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s past currency interventions and argues that similar efforts are unlikely to accomplish much this time around:

Erdogan might thus be laboring under the delusion that another round of currency reforms—introducing some new bills, knocking a zero or two off the value—could bear similar results: shoring up his support among Turkish nationalists and renewing faith in the lira just enough to keep it scuttling along. But the results of currency reform aren’t always as benign as those that followed Erdogan’s last attempts, and it isn’t clear that further appeals to nationalism would be enough to patch over deeper structural problems such as Turkey’s overpowered construction industry and, potentially, a further round of U.S. sanctions.


Northern Iraq saw a couple of clashes involving ISIS, or probably involving ISIS, on Wednesday. Overnight, at least six Popular Mobilization fighters were killed by a likely ISIS suicide bomber in the village of Asdira, north of Tikrit. Then later on Wednesday a senior PMU commander was killed in a battle with ISIS fighters in the town of Zhour, east of Mosul.

ISIS released an audio recording on Wednesday purportedly from leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The content on the recording suggests it was made recently–whoever is speaking refers to the Eid al-Adha holiday and to the current strife in the US-Turkey relationship–but it’s unclear if it’s really Baghdadi. If it is, this is the first time he’s surfaced, so to speak, since last September. He called on his followers to fight back against the US and the Syrian government and criticized Syrian rebels who have surrendered to Damascus.


Although seemingly every decision his administration has made with respect to Israel-Palestine has been calibrated to screw the Palestinians even in cases where it didn’t benefit Israel, Donald Trump insists that the Palestinians are about to “get something very good” in any future US-led peace talks as repayment for the Jerusalem embassy decision. Who knows what he means, maybe a weekend in the penthouse suite at some Trump hotel.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Israeli officials announced plans for 1000 new settler housing units in the West Bank on Wednesday. The anti-settlements group Peace Now says the units will probably be located in areas that Israel would have to evacuate under any peace settlement, which almost makes me think the Israelis don’t actually intend on there ever being any peace settlement. But that can’t possibly be right.


The Middle East Institute’s Bilal Saab argues that moving the Fifth Fleet’s headquarters out of Bahrain, an idea that gets some traction every time the Bahraini government commits another human rights atrocity, would be a huge challenge just from a logistical perspective:

Multiple visits to the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama in recent years and regular personal engagement with three former commanders of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) on the issue of U.S. force posture in the Gulf have led me to believe that recreating what the United States has in Bahrain elsewhere would be a structural/logistical nightmare costing tens of billions of dollars.

Moving the base means moving a fleet logistics support center, massive information networks, a communications hub for the entire theater, a fleet headquarters, piers to forward-base mine countermeasures (MCMs) and patrol ships (PCs), and an afloat forward staging base for support to those other forces (PONCE) including all their crews, dependents, and staffing.

The United States would also need to get another base to support a Marine tactical air (TACAIR) Squadron, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and P-3 Orion maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. In addition, the United States might have to find another location for its missile defense Patriot batteries that not only support Bahrain but also contribute, at least indirectly, to the defense of Saudi Arabia.

Climate change may force this move eventually, regardless of anything Bahrain does. Of course the US could, you know, not have multi-billion dollar naval bases all over the world, but we’re probably a few years away from being able to have that discussion in a productive way.


I need to apologize. In yesterday’s update I noted that the Saudis are looking to put five Shiʿa human rights activists to death. But I failed to emphasize that, in a great victory for liberalism and equality, one of them is a woman–the first woman for whom the Saudis have ever sought the death penalty. Congratulations to the Saudis for taking such an important step forward.

To be fair to the Saudis, they’re not just imprisoning human rights activists. They’re also imprisoning religious conservatives who make too much noise. So at least the standards of repression are being applied across the board.

On the downside, it now appears the Saudis will not be publicly listing Aramco after all. The kingdom was planning to sell five percent of its oil giant in an IPO, hoping to bring in some much needed capital based on their own $2 trillion valuation of the company. Instead it may try to sell shares in the company privately. Either the Saudis decided they didn’t want the regulatory scrutiny that comes with going public or they realized that there was no way in hell anybody outside of the royal palace in Riyadh was going to set Aramco’s market value at $2 trillion and they didn’t want to bring on the embarrassment. Or there’s some other scheme in the works here, but I guess only time will tell.


During his Jerusalem visit, Bolton reiterated that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” was intended to change Iranian behavior but not to change Iran’s government. Who are you going to believe, John Bolton or your lying eyes? Meanwhile, in his Eid sermon in Tehran, influential conservative cleric Ahmad Khatami warned that Iran would respond to any US military attack by targeting US and Israeli interests. Or in other words, if you’re Reuters, “Iran threatens to hit U.S., Israel.” Somehow the part about the US hitting Iran first got lost in the headline to that piece, as did the part about how one Iranian religious leader said it, not “Iran.”

Speaking of Eid, Al-Monitor (citing reports from inside Iran) says that would-be Sunni worshipers in Tehran are being prevented from holding communal prayers to mark the religious festival. Sunnis across Iran are frequently targeted for religious suppression, but Sunnis in Tehran have in particular been denied permission to build their own mosques, and their ad hoc prayer halls are often raided by Iranian authorities.

Iranian officials announced on Wednesday that the United Kingdom will step in to help Tehran modify its Arak nuclear reactor now that the US has withdrawn from the nuclear deal. Arak was originally designed as a heavy-water facility that would have produced significant plutonium waste that could in theory have been reprocessed for use in nuclear weapons. Under the terms of the nuclear accord, Iran agreed to redesign the reactor to drastically reduce its plutonium waste.

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