Middle East update: August 30 2018


United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura is offering to try to negotiate a settlement to the situation in Idlib province, and considering his previous successes in negotiating peace in Syria I for one feel pretty good about his chances. De Mistura is at least looking to open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave the province before the heavy fighting begins, but the issues there are that rebel fighters could try to leave through those same corridors and the fact that there just aren’t many other places for people to go short of returning to parts of the country that are now back under Bashar al-Assad’s control. And if they were willing to do that, they probably wouldn’t be in Idlib in the first place.

Said heavy fighting, by the way, looks more likely than ever at this point. All the ships Russia recently moved to the Syrian coast are about to start conducting naval exercises, for one thing. Also, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Thursday that the Syrian military will “go all the way” in Idlib, which maybe he meant in a sexual way but I doubt it. It is still possible, mostly because Turkey and to a lesser extent Russia would probably prefer it, that the Idlib operation could be done in a phased way where the Syrian forces first try to isolate and defeat Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and then give the remaining Idlib rebels a chance to surrender. But the logistics of isolating HTS would be challenging.

Elsewhere in Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that whatever settlement emerges from this conflict will not apply to Israel and that the Israeli military will not stop bombing Iranian targets in Syria. Also, as if there were any real mystery around this issue, the United States is staying in eastern Syria for the time being, partly because it looks like ISIS is too:

ISIS may already have numbers sufficient to rebuild. Two stunning reports this month—by the United Nations and Trump’s own Defense Department—both contradict earlier U.S. claims that most isis fighters had been eliminated. The Sunni jihadi movement still has between twenty thousand and thirty thousand members on the loose in Iraq and Syria, including “thousands of active foreign terrorist fighters,” the U.N. said, despite the fall of its nominal capital, Raqqa, last October. The Pentagon report is more alarming: isis has fourteen thousand fighters—not just members—in Syria, with up to seventeen thousand in Iraq. More important, ISIS has successfully morphed from a proto-state into a “covert global network, with a weakened yet enduring core” in Iraq and Syria, with regional affiliates in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, the U.N. reports. It can “easily” obtain arms in areas with weak governance; it is now a threat to U.N. member states on five continents.

So the Trump Administration has reversed course; it is now keeping U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely. “We’re remaining in Syria,” Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, told reporters on August 17th. “The focus is the enduring defeat of ISIS. We still have not launched the final phase to defeat the physical caliphate. That is actually being prepared now, and that will come at a time of our choosing, but it is coming.” (ISIS fighters are holed up in the Middle Euphrates Valley, including around the small city of Hajin.) U.S. troops will also need to train local forces to hold the ground so isis cannot return, McGurk said. “So this mission is ongoing.”


The UN says that it’s recorded 120,000 cases of cholera in Yemen so far this year. That’s down from last year at this time–talk about damning with faint praise–but it reflects a recent upswing in the incidence of new cases, which is understandably raising concerns of another major wave in this outbreak.

The US Navy said on Thursday that it’s intercepted a shipment of small arms in the Gulf of Aden. Obviously the weapons may have been intended for the Houthis, though the shipment’s destination–and, more importantly, its origin–has not been determined.


Turkish Central Bank Deputy Governor Erkan Kilimci is reportedly resigning from his post to join the board of the Development Bank of Turkey. I mention this only because it could be either cause or effect of the fact that the lira dropped yet again on Thursday and is now sitting at more than 6.8 to the dollar. It could also be a sign that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is about to clean house at the central bank.


Two Iraqi police officers were killed on Thursday by a suicide car bomber in Kirkuk. Presumably ISIS was responsible though they have yet to claim responsibility.


The Jordanian government unveiled plans on Thursday to spearhead a new funding push for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency after the Trump administration’s decision to cut all funding to the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugee issues, even though contradicting Trump could cost Jordan support in Washington. As Jordanian journalist 

Last July, a number of US senators introduced a bill to recognize only 40,000 Palestinian refugees, instead of 5.3 million. Republican congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado said in a statement, “Refugee status is not something that can be handed down from generation to generation,” referring to the descendants of Palestinian refugees who were born and are living in other countries. This is why Jordan is risking its ties with the White House to lead the effort to save UNRWA.

If only half a million Palestinians are considered to be refugees, what happens to the rest? Under the new US criteria, of Jordan’s more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees only a few thousand would retain refugee status. The rest would be settled permanently in the kingdom, a prospect that raises internal problems and existential fears involving issues of demographic balance and political rights. This would comport with claims by Israeli far-right politicians that Jordan is a Palestinian state.


It’s clear that the Trump administration is defunding UNRWA in order to increase the desperation of the Palestinian people and open the door to an “economic peace” in which the Palestinians trade political and human rights for economic relief. It’s unlikely to work out the way the administration is hoping:

In recent months, White House officials have suggested that they have plans to boost economic activity in the occupied territories as a means of helping woo ordinary Palestinians and hopefully reconciling them to the continued denial of their political rights and the loss of key interests like a capital in East Jerusalem and the return of refugees. This idea of an “economic peace” has long been promoted by Israeli officials as a way of sidestepping thornier political questions. Israel’s warming relationships with the Gulf Arab monarchies have also boosted the prospects for such an approach being tried, with states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia reported as potentially bankrolling investments in the occupied territories.

But experts with experience in past negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians say that, despite the hopes of Kushner and the Gulf Arab leaders, such a plan is unlikely to bear fruit.

“The idea behind an ‘economic peace’ is that if you keep people economically satisfied, they won’t demand their political rights,” says Diana Buttu, a political analyst based in Ramallah and former legal adviser to the Palestinian side during the Oslo peace process. “Such an idea is not going to work because this conflict is fundamentally about politics and human rights, not economics.”


While his subjects fellow citizens grapple with rising prices and austerity economics, you’ll be pleased to know that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is building a sweet new summer palace for himself along the country’s Mediterranean coast. Well, at least I’m hoping you’ll be pleased to know it, because nobody in Egypt seems to be. The palace is the centerpiece of a plan to build a whole summer capital on the coast, at the cost of something like $336.5 million.


Hey, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Iran is still complying with its obligations under the nuclear agreement. Good thing the Trump administration is wrecking it then. And even as the administration says regime change isn’t its goal in Iran, the guy who runs that administration is bragging about how he might collapse the Iranian government:

“When I came into here, it was a question of when would they take over the Middle East,” Trump said Thursday in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News. “Now it’s a question of will they survive. It’s a big difference in one and a half years.”

The president didn’t elaborate on the comment.

Yeah, no shit.

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