Middle East update: September 4 2018


While the United Nations Security Council plans to discuss Idlib on Wednesday, the Syrian/Russian offensive there may already have begun on Tuesday as “dozens” of airstrikes were reported across the province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 12 people killed in the strikes but the situation probably doesn’t lend itself to accurate information at the moment. The Trump administration is warning that it will respond to any Syrian use of chemical weapons in Idlib.

Syrian media reported on Tuesday that Israeli aircraft fired missiles at military targets in Hama and Tartus provinces. It also reported that Syrian air defenses downed “some” of the missiles, but “some” isn’t “all,” and there have been reports of explosions in parts of both provinces along with reports of at least one fatality.

Syrian Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told Russian media on Tuesday that Damascus will make no special exemptions for the Kurdish-controlled northeastern part of the country. Specifically he said that the Syrian government will not allow that part of the country any status that “differentiates it from other provinces or ethnicities” or that “strikes at the idea that Syria is one country and one society.” This is presumably not what the Kurds want to hear, but it’s probably welcome new for Turkey. The Turks, by the way, apparently told visiting US Syria envoy James Jeffrey on Tuesday that they want the Kurdish YPG to leave Syria altogether. Good luck with that.


The Saudi-led coalition says it intercepted two Houthi-fired missiles that targeted Jizan province on Tuesday. There have been no reports of damage or casualties, though the Houthis claim they fired four missiles at Jizan, not two.


Iraqi police reportedly killed five protesters overnight in Basra. Protesters reportedly threw gas bombs and at least one grenade at police, who responded with live ammunition even though they’re supposed to be under orders not to use live ammo against demonstrations. To reiterate, residents in Basra are angry about a lack of basic services, including electricity and clean water, as well as rampant corruption and a weak jobs market.

None of those problems is likely to be addressed anytime soon, because the new Iraqi parliament can’t pull itself together to form a government. After a vote for the speakership had to be canceled on Monday, parliament has decided not to convene again until September 15 to give political parties more time to organize a governing coalition.


An Egyptian man was arrested on Tuesday after his backpack, which for some reason was holding flammable liquids, burst into flames as he was walking by the US embassy in Cairo. The man was apparently not badly injured, though now that he’s in Egyptian police custody I suppose all bets are off in that regard.


The Qatari government took a major step forward on workers’ rights on Tuesday when it ended the requirement for foreign workers to obtain an exit visa from their employer before leaving the country. The Qatari government promised last year to reform the often nightmarish way it treats foreign workers, but it has yet to take other steps like instituting a minimum wage and establishing a way for workers to file grievances against their employers.


The Spanish government announced on Tuesday that it is halting a large sale of laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, and refunding Riyadh’s money, due to concerns that its munitions could be used in Yemen. Spain has become Saudi Arabia’s fourth-largest arms supplier, but the current Socialist government in Madrid promised to review the country’s weapons sales around the time it took power last year.

The International Union of Muslim Scholars is criticizing the Saudis for seeking the death penalty for cleric Sheikh Salman al-Awdah. Saudi prosecutors want to execute Awdah for, uh, criticizing the kingdom’s decision to cut ties with Qatar last year. Even for the Saudis the death penalty here seems excessive.


According to NBC, European leaders are working hard to come up with ways to get around US sanctions and continue to do business with Iran:

With a second round of U.S. sanctions set to take effect in November, European officials are working at cross-purposes with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign as they try to preserve as much business as possible with Iran. The goal is to persuade Iran’s leaders to stay in the deal for a few more years — perhaps long enough for Trump to be replaced and for a new U.S. president to rejoin the deal.

Among the creative workarounds under discussion in Brussels and other capitals: Devising an alternative — free from U.S. influence — to the current electronic system used to transfer money from place to place, European officials told NBC News. And since commercial banks must stop handling transactions with Iran or face U.S. penalties, European countries are considering using their own central banks to transfer funds to Iran, wagering that Trump wouldn’t go so far as to sanction an ally’s central bank.

The Trump administration is working to foil the Europeans, threatening to sanction anyone — from American bank executives to small foreign companies — who doesn’t comply. Caught in the middle are foreign companies that must choose between flouting the Trump administration or their own governments.

You’ll be pleased to know that Iran hawks are practically salivating at the idea that Trump would be willing to risk sanctioning European central banks–which would be a really disruptive step for him to take–to get at Iran.

Iranian journalist Rohollah Faghihi says that, while he’s remained the public face of the Iranian government to the world, the collapse of the nuclear deal has cost Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif most of his actual authority:

Mohammad Javad Zarif has been Iran’s foreign minister for the past five years. In that time, he has become a familiar face in the West, earning a reputation as one of the key people to talk to to resolve any given disagreement with Tehran. It helps that he went to graduate school in Colorado, acquiring fluent English along the way—and that he has a reputation for being one of the leading figures in Iran’s camp of reformist officials.

Over the past two years, however, Zarif’s power has dramatically waned. Although he has continued his speaking tours in the West, he has been supplanted on the regional policy portfolios that most matter to Tehran—including Iran’s presence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—by a quieter but far more influential figure: Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime foreign-policy advisor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Velayati is a bit more pragmatic than Iran’s other hardline conservatives but he’s gravitated toward that end of the spectrum recently in an effort to keep himself relevant politically. He mostly advocates for Iran to strengthen its ties to Russia and China as a way to protect against the West.

Velayati during his unsuccessful 2013 presidential run (Wikimedia)

Finally, analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj argues that, considerations about the nuclear deal aside, the Iranian government needs to strengthen and change the way it deals with corruption:

Whether it is the lavish spending of well-connected elites or the nepotism evident in state institutions, there seems to be no shortage of reasons for Iranians to be outraged at rampant corruption at a time of economic crisis. The intensity of public anger has forced the Islamic Republic to respond.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “swift and just” action against “economic corruption.” The judiciary has taken its cue, with prosecutors poised to try “dozens of businessmen” for “economic disruption.” Government officials are not immune from these investigations. Earlier this month, top prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said, “Any official who needs to be summoned will be, from director generals to managers to deputies and [even] ministers.” The deputy governor of Iran’s central bank was among the first to be detained. The crusade against corruption is clearly an attempt to convince the public that existing anti-corruption laws will finally be enforced.

The legal framework to counter corruption is primarily defined in the Islamic Penal Code and the Aggravating the Punishment for Perpetrators of Bribery, Embezzlement and Fraud Act, which outlaw bribery, the trading of influence, embezzlement, money laundering and fraud, among other crimes. Iran also ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in 2009. But most of these laws focus on deterring the crimes of individuals. The main challenge is the overall environment that enables corruption. In other words, to be successful, the fight against corruption cannot merely focus on punishing corrupt actors.

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