Middle East update: September 5 2018

This evening’s updates may be a little less verbose than usual because I’ll be out for a while watching some people do a live podcast or something in DC. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported another day of widespread shelling across Idlib as the expected Syrian offensive to regain that province looks to be underway. The monitoring group said that most of the activity seemed to focus on the western side of the province, the area near Russian military bases in Latakia and Tartus provinces. The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front reportedly destroyed another bridge in that area on Wednesday in an attempt to slow down an eventual ground assault.

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces have begun warning residents in Hajin to prepare for an attack. Hajin is at the center of one of the last pockets of ISIS-controlled territory remaining in Deir Ezzor province and has been a periodic target for US airstrikes for some time now.


United Nations negotiators plan to focus on building trust as they hold Yemeni peace talks in Geneva on Thursday. How, exactly, they plan to do that is unclear, since one of the two principal belligerents in the Yemeni civil war reportedly hasn’t been able to get its representatives out of Yemen. The Houthis say their negotiating team was denied permission to fly out of the country on Wednesday by the Saudi-led coalition, apparently because they wanted to bring a large number of wounded with them for medical treatment. The talks were already going to be indirect, because neither side is ready for face-to-face engagement, but if the Houthis aren’t even in the same city then I’m not sure why anybody would both going ahead with this. There is still a chance they’ll be allowed to leave Yemen so I guess we’ll see.

Thousands of people protested in Houthi-held Saada on Wednesday against the coalition and its penchant for killing civilians. Hundreds of people, meanwhile, protested in government-held Hadhramaut province…also against the coalition, and the Yemeni government, mostly over the wrecked Yemeni economy. Government forces reportedly wounded at least seven people in trying to disperse the crowd.


Don’t look now, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity appears to be sinking almost as fast as the lira’s value:

For millions of Turks who voted against him in the June 24 presidential elections it’s too late, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity has taken a substantial hit, according to a recent survey. Metropoll, an Ankara-based polling outfit, reported that Erdogan’s job approval rating had dipped to 44.5% in August 2018 from 53.1% a month prior.

The data published on the polling site’s Twitter account offered no further information because the company’s monthly report is circulated privately to paying clients. Moreover, in the absence of similar surveys, it’s impossible to compare its results. However, it’s not far-fetched to assume that after 16 years of uninterrupted power Erdogan’s appeal may be waning as his strongest suit, a thriving economy, is coming unstuck.


Economic-based protests gripped Basra again on Wednesday as well, with demonstrators blocking the entrance to the Umm Qasr port and torching the main government building in Basra. At least six people have reportedly been killed over the past two days in clashes with Iraqi police, and while some of the protests have turned violent there is growing concern about the use of lethal force by those Iraqi security forces.


Wednesday was a heady day in Israel-Paraguay relations. New Paraguayan President Mario Abdo’s government announced that it was reversing a decision made by his predecessor and moving its embassy back to Tel Aviv. In response, the always level-headed Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the closure of Israel’s Paraguayan embassy altogether. Glad to see we’re all being reasonable about these thorny issues.

Fortunately for the Israeli right, while they were seething over Paraguay’s decision they could also take solace in the fact that Israel’s Supreme Court gave final approval to a plan to demolish the West Bank Bedouin town of Khan al-Ahmar due to its proximity to a couple of Israeli settlements that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Also, the Israeli government ordered the closure of the Erez crossing from Gaza on Wednesday after rock-throwing protesters there apparently damaged the main terminal on Tuesday. Several protesters were wounded by Israeli forces in retaliation. Erez is the main crossing into and out of Gaza for people.

At LobeLog, Robert Hunter takes a dim view of the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding for UNRWA:

By announcing this past week that it is cutting off all U.S. support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), the Trump administration knocked the props from under this 70-year-old international program to help support five million Palestinian refugees from various Arab-Israeli conflicts who are located across the region.

The response has been swift. The European Union, speaking for its 28 members, calledthe US decision “regrettable.” Germany, which for obvious reasons is Israel’s strongest supporter in Europe, pledged to “substantially increase its funding to UNRWA.” At home, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) tweeted that “Further impoverishing Palestinians only empowers extremists, undermines the P.A. [Palestinian Authority] and harms Israel’s security. Completely cutting off funding to UNRWA is inhumane and undermines our own interests in the region.”

With this action, the Trump administration killed what little hope still existed for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict and ended any role as an “honest broker,” although it pretends otherwise.


Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah visited the White House on Wednesday. He and Donald Trump mostly discussed the Qatar diplomatic crisis, but cybersecurity and nuclear trafficking were also on the agenda.


On top of allowing migrant workers the right to leave the country without having to get their employers’ permission, the Qatari government has now introduced the concept of permanent residency for foreigners, making it the first Gulf Arab country to do so. Non-Qataris who meet the requirements will be eligible to apply for the program, which would grant them access to Qatar’s very generous welfare system as well as the right to open their own businesses without a Qatari sponsor.


I’m sure this is fine:

Nineteen people have been taken ill after an Emirates airline plane landed in New York, officials say.

The plane was quarantined at JFK airport as those on board were checked by health officials. Ten were taken to hospital but others refused treatment.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that initially about 100 people including some crew had complained of illness.

Flight 203 from Dubai landed at 09:10 (13.10 GMT) with 521 passengers.

Many of the passengers were apparently returning from Hajj and may have been exposed to a flu bug during the pilgrimage. At least, I hope it was the flu.


Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia is becoming more free and open by the day:

Saudi Arabia will punish online satire that “disrupts public order” with up to five years in prison, the public prosecutor said Tuesday, as the kingdom cracks down on dissent.

“Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disrupts public order, religious values and public morals through social media … will be considered a cybercrime punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of three million riyals ($800,000),” the public prosecution tweeted late Monday.

Hey, you know, don’t do the crime (satire) if you can’t do the time (five years in prison for doing satire).

Stories like the above make it hard to believe, but some Western countries have apparently started wondering if their alliances with Saudi Arabia are really worth all the attendant, well, bullshit:

Although focused on British-Saudi economic and political relations, the report by King’s College London and the Oxford Research Group calls into question not only British but also by implication long-standing Western willingness to turn a blind eye to the kingdom’s violations of human rights and its conduct of the Yemen war that has produced one of the worst humanitarian crises in post-World War Two history.

The London incidents coupled with increasing European questioning of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including this week’s cancellation by Spain of the sale of 400 laser-guided precision bombs, suggests that Saudi Arabia is finding it more difficult to keep domestic dissent and international criticism under wraps. Spain follows in the footsteps of Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium who have suspended some military sales.

The Spanish cancellation came on the heels of last month’s Saudi-Canadian spat sparked by a call on Saudi Arabia by Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom, Dennis Horak, to release detained women activists, including Samar Badawi, the sister-in-law of a recently naturalized Canadian citizen, Ensaf Haidar.


With the US announcing plans for Donald Trump himself to chair a session of the United Nations Security Council later this month to talk about Iran’s misdeeds or whatever, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lashed out on Wednesday via Trump’s favorite social media website:

The Iranians, in a bit of a concession to Europe, have reportedly decided not to pursue the transfer of around 300 million euros of their money out of Germany as part of their effort to accumulate hard currency as US sanctions take effect. The Trump administration had been pressuring Berlin not to allow Iran to withdraw that money, putting the German government in a tight spot.

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