Middle East update: September 8-9 2018

Shanah Tovah to any readers celebrating the Jewish New Year this evening.


Strap in and feel the Gs:

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has approved the use of chlorine gas in an offensive against the country’s last major rebel stronghold, U.S. officials said, raising the prospects for another retaliatory U.S. military strike as thousands try to escape what could be a decisive battle in the seven-year-old war.

In a recent discussion about Syria, people familiar with the exchange said, President Trump threatened to conduct a massive attack against Mr. Assad if he carries out a massacre in Idlib, the northwestern province that has become the last refuge for more than three million people and as many as 70,000 opposition fighters that the regime considers to be terrorists.

Trump’s threats aside, he apparently has yet to decide where exactly his red line is here, which means his decision will be arbitrary as always. But given that the press and Democrats have showered him with cookies the last two times he bombed Assad’s positions in Syria, he’s likely to take action at even a relatively minor provocation. Chlorine gas is a chemical weapon, but it’s a dual-use product and is considered less severe than nerve agents like sarin (and not much more severe than the conventional weapons Assad has been using against civilians with impunity). Retaliating for a chlorine gas attack would be setting a new precedent for US intervention.

Idlib and Hama provinces were subject to some of the harshest Syrian and Russian airstrikes in months over the weekend, including the reported use of barrel bombs against villages in both provinces. At least four civilians were reported killed in the strikes on Saturday and at least seven were reported killed on Sunday. The strikes have already put civilians in northern Hama province and southern Idlib province on the move north, which is only the beginning of the refugee crisis this offensive is about to generate.

Elsewhere in Syria, 18 people were killed on Saturday in fighting between Syrian soldiers and YPG fighters in the city of Qamishli. The YPG claims that the fighting began when Syria soldiers moved into an area of the city under Kurdish jurisdiction. The Kurds and the Syrian army have managed a tenuous coexistence in Qamishli for several years, one that occasionally breaks down into violence. The government forces there aren’t really under Damascus’s control anymore but they are still loyal to the government and are still getting paid (or at least given nice IOUs) by the government.

Also, the Russian government on Sunday accused the US of dropping white phosphorus over the town of Hajin (home of the last large pocket of ISIS fighters in Deir Ezzor province) on Saturday, though there’s no word on whether it caused any casualties. White phosphorus is used ostensibly for illumination, which is why it hasn’t been banned under international law, but when used in populated areas or against hostile personnel it is a chemical weapon that causes severe burns. Given the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy with respect to the use of any and all chemical weapons in Syria, I assume President Trump will be announcing airstrikes on the Pentagon any minute now.


The United Nations Yemen peace consultation in Geneva finally collapsed on Saturday due to the Houthi delegation’s three day absence. UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths now says he plans to travel to Sanaa to meet with the Houthis and try to maintain some semblance of a peace process. Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi blamed the Saudi-led coalition for his delegation’s failure to appear in Geneva, suggesting that it had refused to guarantee that the Houthi representatives would actually make it to Geneva safely. Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani naturally blamed the Houthis for “sabotaging” the talks.

Regardless of who’s to blame, the breakdown of the peace talks doesn’t seem to have been good news for the Yemeni people. Al Jazeera, citing in part a report from AFP, says that “dozens” of people were killed in and around Hudaydah in the 24 hours after the conference in Geneva ended. Those reports haven’t been confirmed but AFP says that 73 rebel fighters and 11 government soldiers were killed in clashes. Elsewhere, a probable US drone strike reportedly killed four al-Qaeda fighters in Abyan province.


ISIS militants reportedly blew up an oil pipeline in Kirkuk on Sunday.

Though things appear to have calmed down on Sunday, the situation around Basra remains tense. Somebody fired three rockets at the city’s airport Saturday morning and that was after a particularly violent Friday of protests:

The official said it was not clear who was behind the Saturday morning attack on Basra airport, which also houses the U.S. consulate. He said the attack occurred at about 8 a.m. local time and did not cause casualties or disrupt flights in or out of the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

Hours earlier, protesters shouting anti-Iranian slogans including “Iran, out, out!” stormed the Iranian consulate and set a fire inside. They also burned an Iranian flag and trampled over a portrait of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In response to the ongoing protests, the spokesperson for populist Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party on Saturday demanded the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Which is interesting, because Sadr and Abadi only just cemented a political alliance a few days ago with an eye toward forming Iraq’s next government. The Conquest Alliance, Iraq’s second-largest party after Sairoon, also demanded Abadi’s resignation, setting off rumors that Sadr might shift his allegiance in their direction. Nevertheless, Sadr and Abadi met on Sunday and came away insisting that everything is fine and their alliance remains strong.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man who was allegedly attempting to “sabotage” the Gaza fence on Sunday. His death makes it 176 Palestinians killed near the fence since March.

To his credit, Donald Trump achieved something over the weekend that few thought possible: he managed to find another source of US aid to the Palestinians that he could cut. Trump cancelled $25 million in aid that had been earmarked for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. I guess now we’re literally trying to end the Israel-Palestine conflict by ending the Palestinians.


Georgetown professor Bilal Saab argues that Mohammad bin Salman may already have maxed out the potential damage he can do to the Middle East because his domestic agenda is constraining his foreign policy agenda:

Some concern about Saudi foreign policy under the current leadership dispensation is justified. MbS lacks experience in the complex affairs of the world, seems unable to learn from his mistakes, has taken too much onto his plate too fast, and has surrounded himself with yes-men. He also believes he has the unconditional backing of President Trump, a presumption of constancy in a man with a marked tendency to boomerang on his erstwhile “friends” if he senses a slight or so much as a scintilla of disloyalty. All of this makes for, at best, a risky formula for the conduct of Saudi foreign policy. At worst it is a prelude to calamity.

All that said, there are limits to the harm his statecraft is likely to cause. The reason has to do with the difference between diplomacy and statecraft—words that many otherwise intelligent people assume to be synonyms, but are not.

Diplomacy concerns relations among states. Statecraft concerns the concert of a leader’s assets, domestic and foreign, into a unified operating strategy. And here is the rub: Crown Prince Mohamed’s top priorities are domestic. This suggests that he is and will continue to be more restrained in foreign policy than many think, on behalf of his domestic reform vision. This might not sound credible or reassuring in light of all the trouble he has caused already, but if one thinks his second year will give rise to something as stability-shattering as, say, a war with Iran, then this is a good time to stow the panic button.

I’m not sure this calculus works. MBS has already done a tremendous amount of damage to the region, and part of the deal he has to make with religious hardliners at home, so that they’ll acquiesce to his domestic changes–is to be more energetic at countering Iran abroad. And he can still do a lot of regional damage via his domestic agenda, by continuing to make the kingdom more reactionary. Of course he’s unlikely to escalate things as far as war with Iran, which would be catastrophic, but if that’s where we’re setting the bar then that in itself is troubling.


The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attacked a Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan base in northern Iraq on Saturday with several short-range missiles. The PDKI says that 11 people were killed in the missile strike and another 50 were wounded. Not long before that attack, while speaking at a graduation ceremony for the regular Iranian military, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran’s military power “scares off the enemy and forces it to retreat.” At least it does when the enemy is some Kurdish paramilitaries or whatever.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told Iranian state media on Sunday that construction has been completed on a new facility for manufacturing advanced centrifuges. Those centrifuges could, if Iran were of a mind, be used to enrich uranium much more efficiently than the centrifuges Iran currently is allowed to operate under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Thank goodness that thing won’t be around much longer and the Iranians can really get down to business. Thanks, President Trump!

If you’re looking for an explanation for Iran’s detention of dual-nationals like Iranian-British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, then a new IRGC propaganda film may contain some answers:

The Iranian motives behind such arrests have been unclear, as have been the political machinations over them. But the new film, made in the style of a documentary, sheds light on the tug of war between hardliners dominating the unelected faction of the Iranian establishment and the elected faction represented by the moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

The 21-minute film, produced by the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and shown to Iranian parliamentarians and released online, explores the case of Canadian-Iranian Abdolrasoul Dorri-Esfahani, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team jailed for espionage.

The film amounts to an extraordinary attack by the IRGC’s intelligence arm on Rouhani’s ministry of intelligence, which insists Dorri-Esfahani is innocent. It is believed to be the first time such a spat between Iranian intelligence services has been aired in public.

The idea that some of these people are being held over what amounts to an internal power struggle between the Guard and Iran’s civilian government is horrifying, but definitely not outside the realm of possibility.

Finally, the New America Foundation has conducted a new study of materials taken from Osama bin Laden’s playboy grotto in Abbottabad that comes to a substantially different conclusion about al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran than the one the fine folks at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reached in collusion with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo last year. Barbara Slavin offers the cliff’s notes version:

Iran and al-Qaeda had a largely hostile relationship and the Sunni jihadi group saw Shiite Iran as a “postponed enemy,” according to a new study of documents retrieved by US Special Forces during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.

President Donald Trump and members of his administration have sought to justify a tough new policy toward Iran in part by asserting that al-Qaeda is among the “terrorist proxies” backed by the Islamic Republic.

However, according to the study, “no evidence of cooperation … on planning or carrying out terrorist attacks” between Iran and al-Qaeda has emerged and the relationship was one of expediency on al-Qaeda’s part and calculation on Iran’s.


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