Middle East update: September 17 2018


Astoundingly, Monday’s meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi appears to have produced a tangible, potentially huge result. The two leaders pledged to establish a 15-20 kilometer wide “demilitarized zone” in Idlib province that will separate rebel and government lines and will be patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces starting in the middle of next month. There are a lot of blanks that need to be filled in here, but after the meeting Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu declared that there will be no Syrian government offensive in Idlib and that the Russians would work out an agreement with the Syrian government to stop bombing the province. Like I said, potentially huge.

This arrangement won’t last forever unless Turkey is able to successfully excise extremists from Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham foremost among them. That’s much easier said than done–any attempt to go after HTS is likely to spark its own conflict in Idlib and potentially attacks inside Turkey as well. And maybe today’s deal will fall apart anyway as so many attempts at Syrian ceasefires and deconfliction zones have before. But in the meantime, for civilians living in Idlib who have literally taken to living in caves to escape airstrikes, this outcome is better than anybody could have expected just a couple of weeks ago. And to his credit, Erdoğan pulled it off. After being embarrassed in Tehran a week and a half ago, the Turkish president changed the conditions on the ground with his decisions to reinforce Turkey’s outposts in Idlib and deliver more heavy weaponry to its rebel proxies. He forced the Syrian military to postpone what looked like an imminent attack and opened up time and space for this agreement with Putin to happen.

Elsewhere in Syria, there’s been another Israeli (alleged) missile attack, this time in Latakia province. Syrian state media says its forces intercepted the attack but witness reports say at least some of the missiles hit their target, which appears to have been some sort of ammunition facility. In related news, possibly, the Russian defense ministry says it’s lost contact with one of its aircraft near its Hmeimim air base in Latakia. Hopefully there’s no connection between the missile strike and the missing aircraft, but if there is…yikes.

Today in hint-dropping, the Israeli Defense Ministry commemorated the 30th anniversary of its first satellite launch by publishing spy satellite imagery of Bashar al-Assad’s house. Not terribly subtle.


A coalition airstrike in Yemen’s central Bayda province killed at least seven civilians on Sunday, with Houthi media reporting 11 people killed. Elsewhere, Houthi TV reported late Monday that the coalition bombed a “navy school” in Hudaydah, but details are not yet available.


Erdoğan is in a little trouble at home, where people are raising eyebrows over his decision to accept a luxury aircraft from the Qataris–still eager to buy friends–worth around $500 million. Erdoğan’s defense is that the plane was a gift, not a purchase–which doesn’t really speak to the whole corruption problem this exchange poses–and that the Qataris gave it to Turkey, not to Erdoğan personally. But since Erdoğan has arranged things so he can rule Turkey pretty much as long as he wants, I’m not sure the latter point really matters.


The Iraqi government has announced plans to deploy military forces along its side of the Iraq-Turkey border in an effort to deter Turkish military activity in northern Iraq. Turkey asserts the right to act with near impunity in northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK positions there, but Baghdad continually chafes at Ankara’s violations of its sovereignty.


An 11 year old boy killed during Friday’s Gaza protests may have died due to being struck by a rock rather than shot by Israeli soldiers as originally reported. Palestinian officials have quietly retracted the boy’s original cause of death.


Over at Fellow Travelers Blog, Sam Ratner interviews The Century Foundation’s Molly Bangs, whose research (focused on Kuwait) argues that much-reviled “honor killing” laws in the Middle East are relics of colonialism rather than indigenous culture:

SR: You touched on it in your last answer, but can you talk a bit more about the role colonialism played in the spread of gender-based violence laws? How does the colonial focus on gender in law compare to what we know about pre-colonial justice systems in what’s now Kuwait?

MB: I was trained in political science, rather than history or law, but from what I’ve studied, I think it’s hard to understate the role of colonialism in these laws codifying gender-based violence. Since you asked about Kuwait, I’ll expand on that case a bit in the context of its region. As so many Middle Eastern countries’ legal systems underwent modification with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and waves of independence in the latter half of the 20th century, there are many similarities amongst them, mostly imitating the Egyptian Civil Code of 1942—authored by Egyptian jurist Dr. Abdul Raazaq Al Sanhuri with the help of a French professor Dr. Edouard Lambert—which was derived heavily from French civil code.

In the case of Kuwait, which was under British colonial rule from 1899 until 1961, just before independence, the UK-led Kuwaiti government commissioned Sanhuri to lead a judicial committee charged with overhauling Kuwait’s legislative framework. This framework would remain in place post-independence as a part of the 1962 constitution. Sanhuri’s ideas also directly influenced Iraq’s laws, and Syria, Libya, and Qatar are among other countries that have borrowed them.


In what probably comes as unwelcome news in Tehran, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first trip abroad will take him to Saudi Arabia, where among other things he’s expected to discuss the possibility of a large loan from the kingdom to finance Pakistan’s oil purchases. With Pakistan’s economy struggling Khan needs to get help anywhere he can, and the Saudis are likely thrilled to have him in their debt since it entrenches their relationship with Pakistan.


The Trump administration, which just a couple of weeks ago was eagerly planning to hold a UN Security Council session this month on Iran, chaired by Donald Trump himself, has now not only canceled that plan but is blaming UN ambassador Nikki Haley for coming up with it in the first place. Had Trump done a meeting on Iran he would have been obliged to invite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to attend, and then likely would have had to sit there while Rouhani, along with UK Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, bashed him for pulling out of the nuclear deal. Chances are that wouldn’t have gone too well. Now instead of a meeting devoted to the IRANIAN MENACE, Trump reportedly will instead “chair a debate on nonproliferation, constitutionalism and sovereignty.” Sounds like a real ripper of a time.


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