Middle East update: August 27 2018


Well, it sure seems like somebody is fixing to do something in Syria and then somebody else might retaliate in some way for whatever that is. You can fill in the blanks there. Russia has already warned that it has evidence that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is preparing to stage a fake chlorine gas attack in Idlib province in an attempt to frame Bashar al-Assad. Their evidence apparently consists in part of behind the scenes photos of Syrian movie sets, so it’s slightly less than convincing and there is a possibility the Russians are trying to create some deniability for a future Syrian government chemical weapons attack. Now the Russians say they see evidence that the US is moving military assets into position for a major strike on Syria in retaliation for either the upcoming fake chemical weapons attack that HTS might be planning to stage or the upcoming real chemical weapons attack that Russia is trying to pin on HTS. The waiting is, of course, the hardest part, but I’m afraid that’s all we can do at this point.

Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami’s visit to Syria did, unsurprisingly, result in a deal for Iran to help rebuild the Syrian military once all the shooting and the gassing and the fake gassing and the bombing about the possibly fake gassing is over. This is certainly not what the Israeli government wanted to hear and it kind of throws a monkey-wrench into all those “let’s get Russia to help us force Iran out of Syria” plans emanating from the Trump administration. Syria’s biggest military problem when the war finally ends is presumably going to be manpower, and it’s unclear how Iran plans to fix that apart from importing more foreign fighters loyal to the cause.

As ever, it’s a real comfort to know that the leaders of Iran, Russia, and Turkey are working diligently to bring peace to Syria. They’ve already accomplished so much, like…uh…boy I could just go on and on here but I don’t want this post to get too long. Anyway they’re all planning to meet in Tabriz on September 7 in an attempt, one assumes, to try to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib province. According to Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman, the Russian government has given Ankara until September 12 to either aid the Russians and Syrians in clearing out the province or just get the hell out of their way. That…doesn’t seem like things are moving in a positive direction.


DEVELOPING: “Heavy” coalition airstrikes reportedly hit Sanaa’s airport as well as an air base north of the Yemeni capital late Monday night. More details are as yet unavailable.

If you’ve been wondering how long it would take the Saudis to actually use the “you can’t make an omelet” defense for slaughtering thousands upon thousands of Yemeni civilians including children, Monday was your day. Coalition spokesperson Turki al-Maliki whipped out the “there is no war without collateral damage” line employed by the US every time it bombs an NGO hospital in Afghanistan or a refugee shelter in Syria. You know, the one where they never consider why there has to be a war at all. Maliki asserted that the United Nations is under some kind of pressure from the Houthis, which would be a hilarious supposition if it weren’t being used to try to justify the Saudis killing 60+ schoolchildren over the past couple of weeks.


BuzzFeed’s Emily Tamkin looks at the deterioration of the US-Turkey relationship, with a special focus on what’s really behind recent events–ego:

There was a time that the United States thought of Turkey as a close partner, the future of the Muslim world, a firm NATO ally, and the host of a large US Air Force unit at Incirlik Air Base. As recently as May last year, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the White House, Donald Trump was stressing what a good ally Turkey had been.

But those days appear gone, as Trump and Erdogan spar over the fate of an American evangelical pastor, and former diplomats and Turkish officials worry that the dispute has devolved into a standoff between two of the biggest egos on the world political stage.


Iraqi President Fuad Masum has ordered parliament to reconvene on September 3. Which starts the clock ticking toward the formation of a new government, something the country’s political parties are still scrambling to negotiate. One thing that’s apparently not on the table in those negotiations is a return of Kurdish control in Kirkuk. Prime Minister (though maybe not for much longer) Haider al-Abadi said on Monday that he will not hand Kirkuk back over to the Kurdistan Democratic Party or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in return for either party’s agreement to join his parliamentary bloc.


Egyptian authorities announced on Monday that their security forces killed five militants in a gun battle in Asyut province. They didn’t say who the militants were. ISIS’s main Egyptian position is still in the Sinai and Asyut is in southern Egypt, so this group could have had some other affiliation.


Houthi-controlled media reported on Monday that the Yemeni rebels had sent a drone to target the Dubai airport, but UAE officials denied that any attack took place and there don’t appear to have been any disruptions in airport operations.


It’s coming from Al Jazeera and therefore Qatar and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt, but allegedly the decision to scrap plans to hold an IPO for five percent of Aramco was made by King Salman himself. If that’s true, then he was motivated by two considerations: one, he was concerned about requirements to open Aramco’s books for public disclosure rules for some reason, and two, he wanted to put a leash on his son and crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, just a little bit.

The Aramco IPO is MBS’s idea and the centerpiece of his Vision 2030 plan to diversify the kingdom’s finances. Without the capital it was expected to bring in, that economic plan is in a bit of jeopardy. The Saudis could sell those Aramco shares privately, but any private buyer is going to want to see whatever financial details the kingdom felt were too dangerous to be revealed to the public. If some of those details include, say, an admission that the Saudis don’t have as much oil as they’d like the rest of the world to think they do, that would affect Aramco’s private valuation just as much as its public valuation.

Of more interest of course is the notion that King Salman is trying to cramp his son’s style. This would be the second time the king has apparently smacked the young crown prince down recently–last month Salman was reportedly assuring Arab leaders that the Saudis would not support the Trump-Kushner Middle East Peace Plan if it was unfair to the Palestinians, after MBS had spent months trying to strong-arm those same Arab leaders into falling in line behind it.


Iran’s intelligence minister declared on Monday that Iranian forces “killed two militants and arrested 14 in two separate operations carried out in the western part of the country,” without mentioning when these alleged operations took place or who the militants were.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday called on European leaders to guarantee that Iran’s oil sales and access to international banking will not be affected by the US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions. In a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Rouhani said that the remaining parties to the deal needed to act “more quickly and transparently” to save it. Meanwhile, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ navy, General Alireza Tagsiri, said that Iran exerts “full supervision over the Persian Gulf” and that there’s no need for a US presence there. Tagsiri subtly renewed Iranian threats to cut off oil shipping in the Gulf in the event of a confrontation with the US.

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