Middle East update: September 11 2018

This evening marks the Islamic New Year so Happy New Year to readers who are celebrating it. I’m going to be out a good chunk of the day so this early/condensed update will have to hold you until tomorrow.


Hey, Ayman al-Zawahiri (apparently) popped up out of his hole long enough to record a 30 minute lecture, released on Tuesday, that commemorates 9/11 and calls on Muslims around the world to wage war against the United States:

The message came in the form of a 30-minute clip that included an audio lecture titled “How Do We Face America?” and attributed to Zawahiri, whose photo and alleged voice are featured. The recording paints former President George W. Bush’s decision to launch a war on terror across the Middle East and its periphery in response to 9/11 as a holy war, noting, “Seventeen years have passed since Bush launched his Crusader war against Muslims, a war linked with the historical enmity directed towards Islam from its dawn to this very day.”

“Behind all the conflicts involving Muslims, one finds either the direct hand of the secular crusader West in the leadership of America, or its silent approval, connivance, collusion, or intrigues. It is basically a religious enmity, even if other shades of hostility overlap with it, whether economic greed, the desire to establish hegemony over geographic locations, and so on,” he said.


The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday began their final offensive against the town of Hajin in Deir Ezzor province. Hajin contains the last pocket of ISIS controlled territory east of the Euphrates River and is the last semi-major population center in Syria under ISIS’s control (the group is still believed to be hanging around in parts of the desert region west of the Euphrates and likely still has cells in more populated parts of the country to the west). There’s an expectation that ISIS fighters will opt for a last stand here since they don’t really have anywhere else to go, which could be bad news for the 60,000 or so civilians in the town and its immediate environs. But ISIS fighters may be working on tunneling their way out into the desert as a means of escape, so we’ll see. Once Hajin falls Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” will officially be a virtual-only entity, as it will have lost its last recognized territory.

Displaced Syrians from southern Idlib province have already begun arriving in towns and villages near the Turkish border, having fled the early stages of the Syrian/Russian air campaign. If the offensive continues those people, along with thousands more, will move toward Turkey, an outcome Ankara is really hoping to avoid. On Tuesday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on Russia, Turkey, and Iran to find a solution for Idlib that protects civilians. At this point that’s probably much easier said than done.


The Saudi-led coalition has responded to the failure of peace talks in Geneva by resuming what appears to be a pretty major offensive against the port city of Hudaydah, humanitarian consequences be damned I guess. The ground offensive to take the city remains mostly stalled out to the south but meanwhile coalition airstrikes can do a lot of damage to Hudaydah’s vitally important seaport, or the city’s schools, playgrounds, flower shops, basically whatever looks like a neat target to those crack Saudi pilots.


Iranian officials are demanding that the Iraqi government shut down Iranian Kurdish bases in northern Iraq and hand militants in those bases over to Iran. Needless to say this is not likely to be high on Baghdad’s list of priorities at the moment, and anyway it’s unclear whether the Iraqi government could even attempt something like this without risking a wider conflict with the Kurds. In perhaps related news, unknown gunmen shot up a Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan office in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah early Tuesday morning. There were no casualties and there’s been no claim of responsibility, but if you’re planning to take the IRGC’s Quds Force in your office pool I wouldn’t try to talk you out of it.


At +972 Magazine, Sharona Weiss looks at a tale of two West Bank settlements–Khan al-Ahmar, which Israel’s High Court just ordered demolished last week, and Mitzpe Kramim, which the same court legalized the week before that:

Both Mitzpe Kramim and Khan al-Ahmar were built without the necessary permits – Mitzpe Kramim on privately owned Palestinian land, Khan al-Ahmar on so-called state (public) land that was confiscated from Palestinian landowners from Anata in 1975 (the question as to whether the government completed the plot’s registration as state land came up in proceedings). Both communities requested that their civilian structures be legalized retroactively.

The difference? Apparently, only one community has the quality of good faith: decent, well-behaved Israeli settlers who gained rights to property that they seized illegally, all because their intentions were assumed innocent. This legal argument could pave the way for the legalization of many other unauthorized outposts. But how could one consider these settlers as thieves or trespassers, when they carry such goodness in their hearts?

Bedouins, or other Palestinians, on the other hand? Their intentions are never presumed innocent. Even according to Israel’s highest court, their hearts do not hold enough virtue to allow the legalization of their schools and homes. Instead, Israel gave the 30-plus Bedouin families living in Khan al-Ahmar two choices: to be relocated near a garbage dump, or a sewage treatment facility. As far as the state is concerned, their dreams are not lofty enough, better fit for crumbling among garbage or sewage.


At Al-Monitor, Iranian journalist Saied Jafari says that Hasan Rouhani’s performance during his grilling by parliament on August 28 appears to have won the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even as it managed to piss off both reformist and principlist (hardline conservative) lawmakers. Khamenei above all values the prestige of the Islamic Republic establishment and Rouhani’s obtuse answers to angry questioning from legislators seem to have preserved that as far as Khamenei is concerned.

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