Middle East update: September 15-16 2018


While everybody waits to see what happens in Idlib, the most active front in Syria at the moment is around the town of Hajin in Deir Ezzor province. The Syrian Democratic Forces moved into the village of Bagouz on Saturday as they advance toward the town, which is the last significant ISIS-controlled pocket of territory in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Saturday that 100 women and children and 30 men had surrendered to the SDF, but also that at least 20 SDF fighters were killed in an ISIS ambush on Friday. The SDF claims that figure is too high.

It’s been a while since we looked at the old Syria map and this one is only current through early August, but not much has changed since then and this is probably the last time you’ll see that sliver of ISIS-controlled territory (in gray) in the southeast (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

As far as Idlib is concerned, if and when an offensive does begin the YPG insisted on Sunday that it will not be involved. There has been speculation that the YPG would assist the Syrian government as part of an effort to reconcile with Bashar al-Assad and perhaps as a prelude to a joint operation to dislodge Turkey from Afrin and the rest of northern Aleppo province. That latter bit could still happen, because it’s not like Assad is happy about the Turks effectively annexing Syrian territory. But the momentum toward some sort of YPG-Assad political arrangement has definitely cooled off over the past few weeks.

Meanwhile, Israel carried out a missile attack late Saturday against Damascus International Airport. The Syrian military claims to have shot down “a number” of the missiles, but the SOHR said that the attack “destroyed an arms warehouse” outside the airport. Presumably the Israelis believe the facility was being used either by Iran or some Iranian-linked group like Hezbollah. Israel almost never acknowledges individual strikes like this, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did make some easy-to-decode comments about enforcing “red lines” in Syria at Sunday’s cabinet meeting.


United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths flew to Sanaa on Sunday for more talks with Houthi leaders about reenergizing a peace process. Meanwhile, fighting has continued in and around Hudaydah, where at least 32 Houthi fighters were reportedly killed over the weekend. A day earlier, Houthi media said the rebels had signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the UN in Oman about beginning a humanitarian evacuation program for seriously ill Yemenis starting this week. Yemenis who qualify (I’m not sure what the full list is, but it appears that cancer patients and people who need organ transplants will at least qualify) will in theory be transported out of the country in order to seek medical treatment. It’s unclear if the UN already had agreement from the Saudi-led coalition to honor such an agreement, but I guess everybody will find out soon enough.


Workers are continuing to protest unsafe and inhumane working conditions on the site of Istanbul’s new airport. Turkish authorities released some 160 protesters over the weekend but reportedly are still holding “hundreds” of people in connection with the demonstrations.


The Iraqi parliament broke a deadlock on Saturday by electing Mohammed al-Halbousi as its new speaker. Halbousi is a Sunni Arab, as all Iraqi parliament speakers must be under the country’s power-sharing arrangement, and is the former governor of Anbar province. Halbousi’s election should clear the way for parliament to form a new government, but it doesn’t offer much of a clue what that new government will look like. The new speaker reportedly has ties with the pro-Iran, Popular Mobilization Unit-linked Fatah Alliance, led by Hadi al-Ameri, which would suggest that Fatah is positioned to form the core of the next governing coalition. But one of his deputies is Hassan al-Kaabi, who is a member of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party, which has been at odds with Fatah during the coalition formation process (his other deputy is Kurdish legislator Bashir Haddad). That vote suggests that Sairoon is in a strong position.

The likeliest outcome of all the wrangling is another broad-based coalition government that includes both Fatah and Sayroon despite their differences, and that will therefore be paralyzed and ineffective. But Sadr has said that he wants a “neutral” “technocratic” government, if such a thing actually exists, and will take his party into the opposition if he doesn’t get it. So things still seem pretty up for grabs right now.

Any dysfunction in Baghdad is likely to be bad news for Iraqis, because as rough as things are now ISIS is on the rebound, and unless the Iraqi government can put a lid on their resurgence things could get significantly worse:

ISIS operates with ease, especially in rural areas and at night, according to interviews with three dozen civilians, community leaders, and local security forces conducted over nearly three weeks this summer in and around the towns of Hawija, Kirkuk, and Tuz Khurmatu. The militants show up on people’s doorsteps asking for food and call civilians’ cell phones to demand the whereabouts of government security forces. Multiple civilians described seeing ISIS fighters move through villages in broad daylight, sometimes entering mosques to ask worshippers for zakat, a charitable contribution under Islamic law.

The roads connecting the towns of Kirkuk and Hawija are riddled with craters and lined with broken power lines, the result of improvised explosive devices planted overnight to disrupt traffic and the electricity supply. With kidnappings for ransom on the rise since ISIS’s official defeat, parents fear letting their children leave the house, while villagers tell of the grisly killings of community leaders who, along with local security forces, are considered the group’s fiercest opponents.


A Palestinian man reportedly stabbed to death a US-Israeli dual national in a West Bank settlement shopping mall on Sunday. He was subsequently shot and then captured by civilians.


If you’ve ever dreamed of retiring in the UAE, and frankly who hasn’t, then I’ve got great news for you. The UAE on Sunday made it so that expat workers who reach retirement age (60-65), who previously were required to leave the country upon retirement, can now stick around on a renewable five-year residency permit, provided they own property in excess of around $545,000 in value or have savings of around half that amount. The move is expected to boost the flagging real estate market in Dubai.


Saudi officials say they shot down a missile fired by the Houthis toward Jizan province on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explained on Sunday that he had to go ahead and sell bombs to the Saudis on account of capitalism:

Asked about the policy reversal during an interview with private television La Sexta, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his government risked “creating the image that it was revising its entire relationship” with Saudi Arabia if it did not deliver the weapons.

“The situation was very complicated. The dilemma the government faced was breaking its commercial, economic and political ties with Saudi Arabia, with the impact this could have in some areas of the country, such as the Bay of Cadiz, or carry out a contract signed by the previous government,” he added.

Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally, had already paid 9.2 million euros ($10.7 million) for the bombs under a 2015 contract signed by a previous, conservative administration in Spain.

Apart from the warship deal, Madrid has obtained juicy engineering contracts to build a high-speed railway linking Mecca and Medina, and a metro in Riyadh.


Iranian officials lashed out at the French government on Saturday for allegedly failing to respond to an attack by Kurdish protesters against the Iranian embassy in Tehran. Iranian media says that demonstrators burned an Iranian flag and broke windows in the embassy with rocks on Friday, and while French police did respond to the incident the Iranians say they failed to do so in a timely manner. The Iranians have gone so far as to accuse the French government of failing to protect Iranian diplomats and even supporting Kurdish “terrorists.”

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