Middle East update: September 10 2018


United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said in Geneva on Friday that the forthcoming Syrian offensive against Idlib could cause “the worst humanitarian catastrophe, with the biggest loss of life, of the 21st century.” And while the 21st century isn’t even a full 18 years old at this point, that’s already a pretty high bar to cross. Already the UN is saying that some 30,000 people have been displaced, and that’s just within the first few days of bombing. Their worst-case scenario of 800,000 displaced, which seemed low to me when they unveiled it a couple of weeks ago, now seems really low. That said, there’s been no real sign that a ground offensive is imminent and the Syrians and Russians may still be in a holding pattern on that front while diplomatic efforts play out.

Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, told an audience at the Federalist Society on Monday that, should the Syrian military employ chemical weapons in Idlib, “the response will be much stronger” than the two previous US retaliations for Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use. Since those two earlier airstrikes were relatively minor all things considered, Bolton’s remarks could mean pretty much anything–you’ll note also that he didn’t clarify any red line, so the question of whether, say, an alleged chlorine gas strike would trigger a US response remains open. A sustained air campaign against the Syrian government would be deeply foolish insofar as it’s too late to affect the outcome of the war and more importantly it would risk a Russian response (there’s also the fact that it would probably, you know, kill a lot of people, but that’s clearly not something this administration worries about). And yet the administration is talking itself into a corner whereby it will look weak if it doesn’t do something big, splashy, and stupid.

The Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces and thus essentially of the YPG at this point, issued a statement on Monday saying that this weekend’s clashes between government and YPG forces in Qamishli would not impact the SDC’s intention to continue negotiating with the Syrian government as to a post-war settlement for northern Syria. Those talks haven’t really gone anywhere yet, and it’s not clear the two sides really have any room to compromise since Damascus has been pretty clear about its intention to restore the pre-war status quo in Syria and the Kurds are pretty clear that they want autonomy moving forward.

With the Idlib operation only getting started, Airwars has put together a retrospective on the Russian intervention in Syria and its impact on both the course of the war and the civilian death toll:

When Russia began bombing Syria in support of the government three years ago, large swathes of the country had been lost by the regime. ISIS controlled much of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassaka governorates – while rebel and extremist islamist groups such as Al Qaeda affiliate the al Nusra Front had seized territory across much of northern and southern Syria – and even parts of the capital. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov asserted in a September 5th interview, “If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse.”

Since then the regime – backed by intense and deadly Russian airpower, and Iranian and other proxies – has captured large urban centers in the center and north of the country, and eventually pushed opposition groups from the outskirts of the capital itself. Advances by US-backed SDF forces meanwhile droves ISIS from nearly all of northeast Syria. Tens of thousands have been reported killed during these parallel air campaigns.

At the Intercept, Murtaza Hussein and Mariam Elba look at a less-covered aspect of the war, the disappearances and executions of thousands of Syrian dissidents by a variety of groups but in particular by Bashar al-Assad’s government:

According to numbers compiled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, there are at a minimum 95,000 forcibly disappeared persons in Syria, with almost 82,000 of these people having disappeared into the sprawling prison network maintained by the Assad government. Several groups have been documenting deaths in detention since the start of the uprising in Syria in 2011.

Human rights groups focused on Syrian detainees said that a recent wave of new death notifications corresponds with records updates that families were made aware of this May. The Violations Documentation Center has counted nearly 9,500 deaths in detention since 2011, about several hundreds of which were made known in this records update. The Syrian Network for Human Rights itself has counted over 13,000 such deaths over the same period, confirming 836 cases of deaths in detention from the records update this year. (The Violations Documentation Center acknowledges that its estimates are more conservative than other organizations like the Syrian Network for Human Rights, as its methodology is to document deaths only once information like the name of the victims and the circumstances surrounding their deaths are confirmed.)

Dozens of reports from families of death notices have continued to roll in, and the human rights groups expect the number of documented deaths in custody to rise in the coming weeks and months.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Basra on Monday and met with local leaders to discuss ways to respond to over a week of violent protests that have left at least 15 people dead at the hands of Iraqi police. Abadi is practically persona non grata in Basra at the point and his visit was criticized by protest leaders.

Abadi is still hoping to hang on to the PM gig whenever Iraq’s political parties finally get around to forming a new government, but these protests–and the corruption/dysfunction underpinning them, and his totally ineffectual response to all of it–may have made his position untenable. That’s bad news for Washington, since the US doesn’t really have many friends left in Iraq apart from Abadi. It may also be bad news for Muqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition with Abadi is now in tatters as is Abadi’s Victory Alliance. The PM is so badly weakened that he’s now unable to stop legislators in his party from jumping ship, most likely to the pro-Iran coalition that former PM Nouri al-Maliki and Conquest Alliance leader Hadi al-Amiri have formed.


As we noted on Sunday, Bolton’s speech on Monday was focused around threats against the International Criminal Court. As part of the Trump administration’s anti-ICC moves on Monday, it ordered the closure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s offices in Washington DC due to Palestinian efforts to pursue a case against Israel at the ICC and their apparent rejection of the still-unreleased Kushner Accords. Palestinian leaders criticized the decision to close the office, which had functioned more or less as the Palestinian “embassy” in the US:

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he was officially notified of the decision, which the State Department formally announced Monday morning, charging that the Palestine Liberation Organization “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” The announcement also cited U.S. “concerns with Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court.”

Erekat decried the move as a continuation of a policy of “collective punishment” by the Trump administration.

“These people have decided to stand on the wrong side of history by protecting war criminals and destroying the two state solution,” he said. “I told them if you are worried about courts, you should stop aiding and abetting crimes.”

Bolton said in his speech that the Trump administration will pursue sanctions against ICC judges and prosecutors should the court take actions against either Israel or the US. The court is considering opening an investigation into US war crimes in Afghanistan.

The governments of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement on Monday calling on the Israeli government not to demolish the West Bank Bedouin town of Khan al-Ahmar. The Israelis seem committed to tearing the place down, most likely to make room for yet another illegal West Bank settlement of their own.


Egyptian officials say their security forces killed 11 militants in northern Sinai in a recent gun battle. As has become the norm for these statements, Cairo offered no information as to when this alleged battle took place nor did it say anything about any casualties taken by the Egyptian forces. Additionally, two Egyptian officers were reportedly killed on Sunday in a car bombing in the town of Sheikh Zuweid, near Egypt’s border with Gaza.


Bahrain will be holding a parliamentary election on November 24. I would say this is important news, but the Bahraini government has already dissolved most of the country’s opposition parties and barred their former members from running again, so the exercise of conducting an election would seem to be little more than window dressing.


The Qatari government on Monday announced that it’s reached agreement with Beijing to supply China with natural gas for the next 22 years. In return China has agreed to give the UAE a wicked titty twister tomorrow at recess.


The Spanish government is apparently going to give Riyadh a chance to appeal its decision to halt the sale of 400 laser guided bombs to the Saudi military. Madrid canceled the deal last week amid concerns that the bombs could be used in Yemen, but it now says it will discuss the cancellation with the Saudis. So that’s nice.

In other news, I’m looking at a headline that reads “Man arrested in Saudi Arabia for having breakfast with woman,” and, yep, that’s pretty much what happened. It was an Egyptian man and a Saudi woman, so you can definitely see where the criminal aspect came into play.


Iranian state media on Monday quoted Ali Shamkhani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, saying that Iran will respond “10-fold” to any hostile act taken against it. This statement, which reflects a self-defense policy that would be par for the course for almost any other nation in the world, is nevertheless shocking enough to generate headlines in Western media because an Iranian said it.

Meanwhile, a judge on the US District Court for Washington DC on Monday ordered the Iranian government to pay $104.7 million to a group of victims of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. Several US service personnel were killed and wounded in that bombing, which a US court ruled in 2006 was committed by an offshoot of Hezbollah. It would take a dramatic reorientation of international affairs for this money to ever actually be collected.


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