Middle East update: September 6 2018


CNN’s Barbara Starr (who gets a lot of scoops from the Pentagon because she’s generally willing to report whatever the Pentagon tells her so take this with a grain of salt) reported Thursday evening that the Russian military has warned the US twice in the past week that it’s preparing to attack “militants” in the region surrounding the Tanf military base in southern Syria. US soldiers are stationed at Tanf along with Syrian rebel proxies who fought as part of the anti-ISIS operation in southern Syria before their position was surrounded by Syrian government-held territory. So there is a risk of escalation here if the Russians carry out some sort of operation and it doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Syria and Russia bombed Idlib province. Thursday’s strikes hit southern Idlib and the rebel-controlled parts of Hama province, turning the air campaign into a weeklong affair that will culminate with Friday’s meeting between Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Tehran. Those three leaders, who have by my rough count successfully concluded approximately 250 Syrian peace agreements that lasted an average of 18 minutes upon completion, will attempt to come to some arrangement that averts a full-scale government offensive in Idlib. So you can expect that full-scale offensive to start as early as Saturday.

I kid, of course. It’s possible that you’ll see some kind of agreement emerge whereby the Russians agree to a slow, limited offensive that focuses on extremist rebel groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and takes a lot of pauses to allow towns and villages to peacefully surrender in order to minimize casualties and displacement. This compromise will then turn into a full-scale offensive once everybody realizes how unworkable it is. What will really be of interest in Tehran is whether the three parties negotiate some kind of agreement that legitimizes Turkey’s occupation of northern Aleppo province (Afrin and Jarabulus). The Turks might offer to “withdraw” from Idlib in exchange for some assurances about the parts of Syria they really want.

Meanwhile, new US Syria envoy James Jeffrey says that “there is lots of evidence that chemical weapons are being prepared” by the Syrian government for use in Idlib. Whether you give that any more or less credence than Russia’s warnings that the rebels are preparing phony chemical weapons false flag attacks is up to you. What good news, then, that Jeffrey’s boss has now reportedly “approved a new strategy for an indefinitely extended military, diplomatic and economic effort” in Syria. Since indefinite war is the Pentagon’s new specialty, this must come as a big thrill for them.

At Foreign Policy, journalist Elizabeth Tsurkov describes Israel’s covert program to support “at least 12 rebel groups in southern Syria” in an effort to keep Iranian-aligned forces away from the Israeli border. The Israelis abruptly cut off their support when the Syrian government and Russia advanced into southern Syria earlier this year. It’s unclear how much of this program would qualify as “supporting terrorists” if, say, Iran were doing it.


The Yemeni peace consultations (please don’t call them negotiations) in Geneva are going great, except insofar as the Houthis still aren’t there and Yemeni government negotiators say they’re going to leave on Friday if that situation doesn’t change. The Houthis continue to claim that they’ve been denied permission to fly from Yemen to Geneva by the Saudi-led coalition, which says that’s bullshit. What has instead caused the snag appears to be a list of Houthi demands, which includes the right to fly wounded rebel fighters to Oman for medical treatment, the right to repatriate rebel fighters who have already received treatment in Oman, and a guarantee that the Houthi negotiators will be allowed to return to Yemen after the conference. That third point should be obvious, and yet it took months for Houthi negotiators to get permission to return to Yemen after the last peace conference, in 2016 in Kuwait. The other two demands are probably better treated as topics for negotiation than as preconditions for negotiation.

Meanwhile, the governor of Hadhramaut province is threatening to cut off oil exports from that province–which account for around half of Yemen’s overall oil exports–unless the Yemeni government “doesn’t comply with demands of protesters” regarding Yemen’s lousy economy. To the extent that the Yemeni government has any authority left after ceding most of it to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it’s not entirely clear what it could do to fix the Yemeni economy while the country is still at war.


There was more violence in Basra on Thursday, as three protesters were reportedly killed by Iraqi police and demonstrators again set fire to a government office building in the city. They also attacked political party offices and a television station. The normally busy Umm Qasr port remains closed due to security concerns. The Iraqi government imposed a 3 PM curfew in and around the city, but may have lifted it or else the protesters just ignored it. Either way it didn’t take effect.

Three mortar shells reportedly struck inside Baghdad’s Green Zone very early Friday morning. There were no casualties reported and it’s as yet unclear who launched them.


King Abdullah is definitely not interested in hearing your “confederation” plans for the Palestinians, and by “your” I mean “Jared Kushner’s”:

“Every year we hear about a confederation. My question is: a confederation with whom? This is a red line for Jordan,” King Abdullah said, according to a palace statement.

“Jordan’s position is firm and steadfast: there is no alternative to the two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital,” he said.

“Any proposal outside this framework has no value.”


At LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick argues that the Trump administration’s decision to defund UNRWA is about nothing less than erasing the concept of Palestinian nationalism itself:

Some have objected to the Trump administration’s decision because it runs counter to U.S. interests. Some have objected because it jeopardizes Israel’s security. Others talk about the staggering humanitarian consequences for the millions of refugees UNRWA serves.

These are all important concerns. But none of them hits the mark of what the Trump administration—apparently at the urging of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without any consultation with anyone else in the Israeli government or defense establishment—is doing. This is not merely an attack on UNRWA, as serious as that may be. This is an attempt to destroy the Palestinian national movement.


The Egyptian government wants to spend around $15.4 billion through 2022 on multiple infrastructure development projects in the Sinai:

In the government announcement, Minister of Planning Hala el-Saeed said that the Egyptian government is planning to establish fish farms spanning an area of 15,590 feddans (16,179 acres) in the Suez Canal area, construct a natural lake and an industrial zone in Port Said, and build about 10 roads at a total length of 1,339 kilometers (8332 miles) in the Sinai Peninsula.

The planned projects also include the building of a number of residential units, 15 hospitals and health units, and the establishment and upgrading of 53 schools, a university and an educational institute in Sinai, according to the planning minister.

Saeed said a total of 54 water supply projects would be carried out in the North Sinai governorate, adding that al-Arish and Sharm el-Sheikh airports, in addition to the industrial zone for glass and marble in central Sinai, would be developed and upgraded. A total of 400,000 feddans of land would also be reclaimed in the North Sinai governorate, and electricity networks along the roads in the governorate’s towns would be installed, he added.

That’s a lot of money, but it’s probably not enough and yet it’s unclear how Egypt could afford to spend even that much. There is potential for resource exploitation in Sinai that could attract outside investors, but no outside investors are going to invest in Sinai until the security situation is fixed, and yet part of the impetus for the development projects is that they might help fix the security situation. I believe Joseph Heller had a term for problems like this.


The six Gulf Cooperation Council states are expected to top $100 billion in total defense spending for the first time next year and to reach $117 billion by 2023. This is great news for US arms dealers but not terribly great news for everyone else anybody who wonders if skyrocketing military spending in an extremely unstable part of the world whose countries all hate one another to some degree might be a bad thing on some level.

In possibly related news, the Trump administration has decided to put off plans to convene a Gulf summit next month to try to heal GCC divisions, citing Donald Trump’s demanding political schedule in the lead up to the November election. They’ll try again in January but there’s no particular reason to think they’ll be any more successful then than they would have been next month, which is to say “not at all.”


The Saudi military intercepted a Houthi-fired missile that was heading for Najran on Wednesday, though some 26 people were injured by the ensuing shrapnel. The number 26 is an interesting coincidence, because a Saudi airstrike killed 26 Yemeni children south of Hudaydah last month. The Saudis on Thursday allowed as to how they might have made a teensy error in conducting that strike.

These sorts of errors have been a hallmark of the coalition air campaign and they will continue in perpetuity, because the Saudis and their Emirati partners know that every time they blow up a bus full of school children the Trump administration, the think tank and natsec pundit community in Washington, and Western media will all shout in unison “I CAN’T BELIEVE IRAN JUST MADE THE SAUDIS BLOW UP ANOTHER BUS FULL OF KIDS, HOW DARE THEY.” Over the course of their Yemen intervention, the Saudis and Emiratis have repeatedly and willfully–if not gleefully–attacked civilians, they’ve used access to food and medical care as weapons of war in stark violation of international law, they’ve disappeared countless people and sent them off to a network of black site prisons to be tortured, and they’ve cut deal after deal with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group I’m told is still a direct threat to attack the West. They do these things with complete impunity, and their consequences are on our heads because we’re letting it happen.

All it would take is a couple of executive orders from the President of the United States to end the coalition’s reign of terror, but of course that would require us to elect a different president. On the other side of the ledger, video surfaced earlier this week of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King Salman’s brother, telling a crowd in London that the King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman are responsible for the Yemen intervention, not the Saudi family as a whole. That’s a fairly radical statement for a royal family that’s always tried to present a united front to the world. Ahmed later explained that he only meant that the king and crown prince are the ones running the kingdom and wasn’t trying to suggest any kind of dissent within the family over Yemen.


Analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj looks at European efforts to separate the continent’s financial systems from the US in part to enable continued engagement with Iran:

In an op-ed published last week in the German newspaper Handelsblatt, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared that the “the US and Europe have been drifting apart for years.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the disagreement between the United States and Europe over the fate of the Iran nuclear deal. When President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and announced his intention to reimpose secondary sanctions that would impact European businesses, he made clear that he wouldn’t treat Europe in what Maas called a “balanced partnership.” In response, Maas believes that Europe must “bring more weight to bear” in global affairs.

In order to defend the JCPOA and protect European companies active in Iran from U.S. sanctions, Maas outlined three initiatives: “establishing payment channels independent of the US, a European monetary fund, and an independent SWIFT [payments] system.” These initiatives echo ideas expressed by French economy minister Bruno Le Maire in the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Le Maire has called for European governments to work together to protect Europe’s economic autonomy by creating “independent, sovereign European financial institutions which would allow financing channels between French, Italian, German, Spanish and any other countries on the planet.” Le Maire has declared that “the United States should not be the planet’s economic policeman.”

Perhaps in an effort to avoid alienating countries whose support it needs to isolate Iran, the US is starting to sound a little more flexible about its November deadline for the rest of the world to stop buying Iranian oil. The Trump administration is now talking about the possibility of temporary waivers for countries that rely on Iranian oil and of assistance for those countries in finding alternative sources of energy.

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