Middle East update: August 28 2018


The Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, which has links to Hezbollah, reported on Tuesday–and an unnamed official in the pro-Bashar al-Assad coalition later acknowledged–that a delegation of US officials visited Damascus in June to meet with Assad’s national security adviser, Ali Mamlouk. A couple of anonymous US officials later acknowledged that the US is communicating with Assad’s government, which is probably as close as anybody in DC will get to confirming that the meeting did take place. The main focus of the meeting seems to have been the US demand that Iran withdraw its forces from southern Syria, while Mamlouk demanded that the US pull out of Syria altogether. Akhbar says the US offered a full withdrawal in return for Iran’s forces being kept away from the Israeli border, but I have to say I have a hard time believing that they would’ve offered such a major concession for something so comparatively minor, Donald Trump’s apparent desire to get out of Syria notwithstanding. The Iranians continue to insist that they’re not going anywhere.

The Russian government on Tuesday reiterated its warnings that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is preparing to launch a false flag chlorine gas attack in Idlib province. More importantly, the Russians have stationed several cruise missile-armed naval vessels off the Syrian coast, in preparation either for a Syrian offensive in Idlib or for a response to any US retaliation for any chemical weapons attack that looks like it came from the Syrian military. There are indeed signs that the US is preparing for something like that.

United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura is planning to meet with representatives from Russia, Turkey, and Iran on September 12 and representatives from Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the US on September 14 to discuss progress toward a new Syrian constitution. Eventually one presumes the Syrians will get a say in this process.

Syrian state media is reporting that “thousands” of displaced persons have begun returning to the Damascus suburb of Daraya, which was retaken by Assad’s forces in 2016 but had been heavily damaged in the process. The suburb is still in ruins but some basic services have been restored. Meanwhile, in the northern Syrian region currently occupied by Turkey, the decline in value of the lira has led to hard times for businesses and maybe for Turkey’s administration. As the lira drops so does the value of the salaries Turkey has been paying to its Free Syrian Army proxy fighters, who may not see an upside to remaining Turkish proxies if the decline continues.


A new United Nations report points the finger at…well, at everybody with respect to Yemeni war crimes. It finds that the Houthis, Yemen government forces, and the Saudi-UAE coalition supporting them have all failed to take steps to protect civilians while also participating in torture, illegal detention, and the use of child soldiers.

Fortunately, Defense Secretary James Mattis assured everyone on Tuesday that the US will continue enabling the coalition’s war crimes. He allowed that US assistance isn’t “unconditional” which is hilarious because of course it is, and continued to push the reality-warping claim that said assistance is actually helping to protect Yemeni lives. Again, of course it’s not, and apparently that’s because the Saudis for some weird reason don’t think the US has any credibility on the issue of protecting civilians:

“There is great frustration on the Saudi side that a country that fought a war in Iraq for 20 years and turned Raqqa and Mosul to rubble is telling the Saudis what to do in a country that’s on their border three years in,” a former senior US intelligence official told Al-Monitor. “They know they’re one lucky shot from having a missile from Yemen hitting their own preschool in Jazan.”

Those frustrations haven’t been eased by growing — and increasingly public — Pentagon skepticism about the air war. On Monday, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the top US air commander in the Middle East, told The New York Times that Saudi officials “need to come out and say what occurred” in the Aug. 9 school bus strike.

Some 27 Yemeni clerics have been killed in Aden over the past two years, 15 of them just since last October, and nobody seems to know who’s doing it. The best guess seems to be that the clerics, most of whom are affiliated with Islah, are being killed as part of a low-level Saudi-UAE conflict. The Saudis support Islah even though it’s affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while the UAE opposes it precisely because of that affiliation. Issues related to the southern Yemeni secession movement may also be a factor.


The Iraqi government is sending representatives to Washington to try to negotiate some kind of arrangement that will allow it to continue doing business with Iran despite US sanctions. It’s unclear when this visit will be happening and there’s no indication that they can expect a favorable reception from the Trump administration.


The Trump administration has reportedly decided to ax funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the agency that deals with Palestinian refugee issues, altogether. All told that takes a quarter of UNRWA’s budget away, though the administration had already significantly scaled back its funding for the agency for this year. The administration hates UNRWA (as, in general, it seems to hate Palestinians) because it’s largely bought into the fringe right Israeli argument that the agency perpetuates the Palestinian conflict and that getting rid of the agency would essentially redefine Palestinian refugees out of existence. It won’t do that, of course, but it will further immiserate the Palestinians and for people like Nikki Haley and Jared Kushner that’s good enough.

I should note here that even people who normally get giddy about the idea of cutting aid to the Palestinians are feeling a little nervous at the idea of cutting that aid completely. Making the Palestinians more desperate is a path to more violence, not a peace plan.

Former IDF analyst Shemuel Meir explains why actual Israeli national security experts–people other than Benjamin Netanyahu, in other words–don’t want to see the Iran nuclear deal wrecked:

In contrast to Netanyahu’s claims, professional Israeli agencies – including the military intelligence branch responsible for Israel’s national intelligence estimate and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission – are opposed to the annulment of the agreement with Iran. In their view, upholding the agreement constitutes a positive contribution to Israeli national security. Statements from Israeli intelligence professionals who support the agreement are drowned out by the brouhaha of how bad the agreement is. The Israeli public, which is continuously bombarded with pronouncements from the Prime Minister’s Office about an imminent Iranian bomb, is not aware of the strategic advantages of a nuclear agreement with Iran.


Journalist David Wood looks at Egypt’s improving and Belt and Road-enhanced relationship with China:

One nation that is far from broke is China, whose economic importance to Egypt far outweighs Russia’s. Beijing has been Cairo’s largest trade partner since 2012, with China providing 13 percent of total import value last year alone—almost double that of Germany, the next highest exporter to Egypt.

The Sisi administration has capitalized on Egypt’s strategic location as a key incentive for closer Chinese relations. “The Suez Canal is what makes Egypt exceptional [to China],” said John Chen, an expert in Sino-Middle Eastern relations at Columbia University.

The canal is key to the “Maritime Silk Road,” one of Belt and Road’s main components. Cairo is looking to leverage its importance into more economic aid from Beijing.


Saudi authorities say they intercepted a Houthi-fired missile headed for the city of Najran.


Iranian authorities say they’ve arrested “tens of spies” working for state agencies. They’ve offered no information as to when all these arrests occurred or for whom they were allegedly spying.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had a very bad day in parliament on Tuesday, as legislators voted to reject his explanations for Iran’s economic struggles and his plans for remedying them. They may now refer the matter of Iran’s weak economy to the judiciary to consider impeaching Rouhani, though that’s unlikely because an impeachment referral would require some evidence that Rouhani broke laws and/or is acting with the intent of wrecking Iran’s economy and so far nobody’s produced anything like that. Anyway, while this affair reflects just how weakened Rouhani and his moderate-reformist coalition has been by these economic challenges and by the reimposition of sanctions, Rouhani himself is now filling a useful role for the Islamic Republic as the punching bag for public discontent.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies crowd is floating more ideas for trashing the nuclear deal, including sanctioning the other parties to the deal for engaging in behavior mandated by the deal:

The Trump administration will need to use all its legal authorities to cut off international support to Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. That requires targeting governments, officials, and agencies that engage in activitiesauthorized by the nuclear deal, such as building a new heavy-water reactor at Arak. It also requires enforcement of secondary sanctions against anyone who establishes research or business ties with designated individuals or institutions.

Universities and research institutions, both in the United States and around the world, should no longer be allowed to teach, train, or employ Iranian students and researchers in the fields of nuclear physics, pure science, and engineering. Prior to the nuclear deal, barriers existed in the United States and Europe to prevent Iran from growing a new generation of nuclear scientists and missile engineers. These barriers must return—by threat of new U.S. sanctions if necessary.

The International Atomic Energy Agency also requires reforms. Both the administration and Congress should condition U.S. funding—which makes up about 25 percent of the agency’s budget—on the termination of investments and technical assistance in Iranian nuclear projects, an end to IAEA-hosted seminars and conferences in Iran, and the removal of all Iranian employees from the agency. The recent discovery of a secret Iranian atomic archive underscored the danger of Iran’s never-ending pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The IAEA must perform its core mission and investigate the sites, activities, research, and materials detailed in the Iranian archive.

I feel like it’s always been a matter of time before this administration decided to pull its funding for the IAEA. If the IAEA doesn’t have the funding to verify Iranian compliance with the deal then Iran’s compliance with the deal can’t be verified and that makes tearing it up that much easier. International institutions that depend on US funding are therefore at the mercy of the US government.

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