Middle East update: August 24 2018


Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Moscow on Friday, and while I’m sure they had a rich and full agenda, foremost on it was the future of Syria’s Idlib province. Çavuşoğlu warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” if the Syrian military were to attack the province and called on Russia to help Turkey separate extremists in the province from legitimate opposition groups. Which might be a challenge since it’s not clear Moscow accepts any Syrian opposition group as legitimate nowadays. Çavuşoğlu’s counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, warned that the Russian government is losing patience with rebel groups in Idlib. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar held a meeting of their own on Friday where they reportedly discussed some Russian proposals related to Idlib, but it’s unclear what those proposals entailed.

Russia and Turkey share a common interest in avoiding a full-scale battle in Idlib, but they share something else as well–an untested and therefore unknown ability to actually steer events in Syria:

Russia and Turkey have an incentive to cooperate on finding a peaceful solution in Idlib. The Russians understand that a government invasion of Idlib would only lengthen the war and prolong their commitment to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Turks do not want to risk yet another massive flow of refugees into Turkey, which would threaten their ability to exercise influence in northern Syria, and undermine their policy of repatriating many of the millions of refugees already in Turkey.

They also both recognize that they need each other. Russia depends on Turkey to manage the opposition and Turkey depends on Russia to manage Assad. Only Russia, through its control over the Syrian government’s airpower, can possibly restrain the Assad regime from attacking Idlib. Only Turkey, which has trained and equipped many of the opposition militias in Idlib, can conceivably get those groups to negotiate with the Assad regime and eventually lay down their weapons in support of a peace arrangement both sides agree to.

Alas, incentives are not destiny. As is so often the case in civil wars, both Russia and Turkey have a limited capacity to control their clients in Syria. Russia and Turkey have a lot staked on success in Syria and so neither the rebels nor the Assad regime really believe that their respective patrons will abandon them. More to the point, both the regime and the insurgents are fighting for their very lives. They often don’t respond to even severe pressure or threats from their closest allies when they feel that compromise would put their futures at risk.


United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock on Friday “condemned” the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes on Durayhimi on Thursday that killed at least 30 people, 26 of them children. He further called for “an impartial, independent and prompt investigation” into recent coalition strikes that have hit civilian targets. Which would be a first. Thus far, the coalition has assumed unto itself the responsibility for investigating its own alleged war crimes and, wouldn’t you know, has pretty much exonerated itself of any wrongdoing. Human Rights Watch issued a new report on Friday into what amounts to a systematic coverup:

The 90-page report, “Hiding Behind the Coalition: Failure to Credibly Investigate and Provide Redress for Unlawful Attacks in Yemen,” analyzes the work of the coalition’s investigative body, the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT), over the past two years. Human Rights Watch found that JIAT’s work has fallen far short of international standards regarding transparency, impartiality, and independence. Established in 2016 after evidence mounted of coalition violations of the laws of war, JIAT has failed even in its limited mandate to assess “claims and accidents” during coalition military operations. It has provided deeply flawed laws-of-war analyses and reached dubious conclusions.

“For more than two years, the coalition has claimed that JIAT was credibly investigating allegedly unlawful airstrikes, but the investigators were doing little more than covering up war crimes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments selling arms to Saudi Arabia should recognize that the coalition’s sham investigations do not protect them from being complicit in serious violations in Yemen.”

You don’t suppose that sentence there was intended for Washington, do you? As anybody who’s watched the coalition work over the past three years could tell you, it routinely ignores the part of international law that says not only must a combatant strike only legitimate military targets, but it must do so only when the likely collateral damage is proportionate to the value of that target. What the report finds is that the coalition has also classified a number of strikes as “unintentional” when evidence shows otherwise.


Israeli authorities say that a Palestinian “militant” they shot and killed near the Gaza fence line on Monday was a nurse working for Doctors Without Borders. It’s demanding answers from the NGO, though at this point the circumstances of this shooting remain unknown. The Israelis claim that the man attempted to breach the Gaza fence and fired on Israeli soldiers, but those claims haven’t been verified.

The Trump administration announced on Friday that it plans to redirect $200 million in planned aid to the Palestinians to other projects. This is the latest salvo in what can only be described as a deliberate effort to immiserate the Palestinians so that they’ll be desperate enough to jump on whatever horrible Israel-Palestine deal emerges from the administration in the coming months.


At LobeLog, Giorgio Cafiero argues that the US shouldn’t attempt to strongarm Oman into turning its back on Iran:

A US official stated that during Trump’s presidency “Gulf countries are increasingly being forced to take sides in the Saudi-Iranian dispute” and “Oman is not exempted.” Yet pressuring Oman to move closer to the Saudi fold and leave Tehran more isolated could hurt U.S. interests. Maintaining an Omani backchannel to Iran, which has proven invaluable over the years in terms of securing the release of American citizens held as political pawns in Iranian prisons and brokering the JCPOA, could be key to Washington and Tehran eventually resolving their differences.

Although it is difficult to imagine the Trump administration achieving any watershed agreement with Iran, the U.S. will eventually have to come to the negotiating table with the Iranian government. When that day arrives, Oman will be set to help facilitate such a badly-needed return to dialogue. Within this context, it would be unfortunate if the White House discounts the importance of Oman as a close ally of the US because of the warm relationship between Muscat and Tehran.


One way you can tell that the Saudi economy is humming is that the International Monetary Fund has suddenly become very interested in telling the Saudis how they should manage it. Since the IMF’s advice always amounts to “immiserate your workers and keep international banks happy,” their involvement in any country’s economic policymaking is very welcome. In this case the IMF is advising the Saudis that higher oil revenues shouldn’t derail Riyadh’s “reform” agenda, where “reform” of course means reducing the number of public sector workers in a country that already has double digit unemployment. It’s never a bad time for a little austerity, am I right?


The European Union unveiled a new 18 million euro development aid package for Iran on Thursday, as part of its effort to encourage Iran to remain party to the nuclear deal. This would seem to be more an insult than a genuine effort to appease the Iranians, but at any rate aid isn’t what Tehran wants. The Iranians are looking for assurances that they can remain active in international commerce, not for the loose change somebody shook out of all the couches in Brussels. So far they’re not getting very far on that front. Nevertheless, the Trump administration was not pleased with the EU’s move.

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