Middle East update: September 18 2018

G’mar Tov to those who are observing Yom Kippur.


It looks like we’ve narrowly averted World War III in Syria again, so whatever else is happening today at least we have that going for us. If you were with us yesterday, then you know that Israel launched a missile strike against a weapons facility in Idlib province allegedly connected to Hezbollah. The Syrian military scrambled its air defenses to intercept the missiles and fire the Israeli aircraft. Amid this a Russian reconnaissance aircraft with 14 crew aboard disappeared from radar.

Later of course it turned out that the plane had been shot down, likely by errant Syrian defenses. The Russian military blamed Israel for putting its plane in the line of fire, saying that the Israelis didn’t give Russia enough advance warning and even that they deliberately attacked in such a way as to put the Russian plane at risk. Israel denied this and insisted that the Russians couldn’t blame Israel for Syrian ineptitude, and anyway it’s Hezbollah’s fault for making Israel bomb its targets. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and everything was…fine. It all seems to be fine now. Both leaders agreed that the whole thing was a terrible tragedy and Putin “urged” Netanyahu not to let it happen again. Which is about all Russia can do in this situation without provoking something it really doesn’t want to provoke.

While there is a natural inclination in Western natsec circles to see nefarious motives or the potential for failure in any Russian diplomatic initiative, I think this take on the Russia-Turkey Idlib deal is more or less the appropriate one:

Under the broad terms of the agreement outlined by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia and Turkey will jointly oversee the creation of a nine-mile demilitarized zone between rebel and Syrian government lines intended to keep the two sides apart.

But it remains unclear whether the deal will prevent an eventual conflict in the area, said Lina Khatib of London’s Chatham House think tank.

“We definitely should not think that the Idlib deal is the ultimate deal. What we are seeing is only a measure for the time being. It is not the endgame for Idlib,” she said. “At best, this deal postpones a potential confrontation in Idlib rather than completely eliminates the possibility of an offensive.”

The agreement to stand down and implement demilitarization in Idlib is wonderful news for the people living there, but its success depends on the parties’ ability–really Turkey’s ability–to impose order on the rebels in Idlib and root out extremists. Otherwise the impetus for attacking the province will return. Given how entrenched hardline groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are in Idlib, that’s going to be difficult work.


The New Arab is reporting that some 24 Yemeni Baha’i have been arrested by the Houthis in Sanaa and charged with espionage, which could carry the death penalty. Critics are charging that the Houthis have singled these people out because of their religion, not because of anything they’ve actually done.

Meanwhile, 18 fishermen were killed off Yemen’s Red Sea coast on Tuesday when their boat was apparently attacked by a warship. Whose warship, you ask? Probably the Saudis’ Well it definitely wasn’t the coalition’s warship, you can be sure of that. It was an unknown warship, of unknown origins probably Iranian although you’d think somebody would have noticed an Iranian warship in the Red Sea. Maybe it was that Houthi navy we’ve all heard so much about. Or uhhhhh ISIS? Qatar? Blackbeard? The possibilities are limitless.


New Iraqi parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi has told Iraqi media that he rejects claims that he’s “pro-Iran” and says he wants to build a stronger Iraqi state that can resist all attempts at foreign influence and stay out of other countries’ problems. Critics have alleged that Halbusi only one his election as speaker after bribing legislators for their support, presumably with Iranian money.

Meanwhile, Iraqi politicians are supposed to be deciding on a new president, but the country’s two leading Kurdish parties can’t seem to figure out who it should be. Iraq’s past two presidents have both come from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and have been jointly supported by the larger Kurdistan Democratic Party, which in turn gets to hold the presidency of Iraqi Kurdistan. But there is no president of Iraqi Kurdistan, at least not at the moment, and it seems the KDP would like one of its leaders to get the national gig this time out while the PUK doesn’t see any particular reason why that should be.

The final leg of Iraq’s dysfunctional triumvirate is the premiership, and the contest for that office lost one candidate on Tuesday when the Iran-backed Conquest Alliance leader Hadi al-Amiri withdrew from consideration. Amiri’s party is rumored to once again be in negotiations with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party to form a governing coalition, and Sadr has been unambiguous about his demand for a non-partisan technocratic unicorn PM. As has Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential religious leader. Amiri clearly doesn’t fit that bill, so his decision is either a concession to Sadr or a recognition of the fact that he’s not powerful enough to buck Sistani and expect to get away with it.


Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian who reportedly assaulted a Jewish worshiper in Jerusalem on Tuesday and then charged at the cops while “waving a sharp object.” I mean, at least they didn’t call in an airstrike. The Israelis also killed two more Palestinian protesters in Gaza on Tuesday.


Hey, I hope I don’t disillusion anybody when I say that this clever tweet that Mike Pompeo’s staff must have been so proud of themselves for writing:

is well-curated bullshit:

Although the issue of what constitutes an adequate response from Iran to the Uyghur crisis is a contentious one, it is important to emphasize that Iran’s cautious reaction to China’s establishment of internment camps for the Uyghurs aligns closely with the Middle Eastern consensus. Even though Saudi Arabia has condemned human rights abuses against Muslims in other Asia-Pacific countries, like Myanmar’s repression of its Rohingya minority, Riyadh has been reluctant to express public discontent with China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The Middle East Eye recently reported that Arab governments, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have deported displaced Uyghurs back to China. Similarly, Turkey has not reacted strongly to the plight of the Uyghurs in China, and previously caused controversy amongst pro-Uyghur activists by blocking media outlets critical of China’s handling of the Uyghur situation.

Unquestionably the Iranians could be saying more about the Uyghurs and there’s no doubt that part of the reason they aren’t is because they need China’s support. But everybody in the Middle East wants to be on China’s good side, and everybody, including countries the Trump administration views as vital allies, are acting accordingly when it comes to the Uyghur issue.

Speaking of Iranian oil, estimates say that looming US sanctions, which will be reimposed in early November, have already shrunk Iran’s oil exports by 35 percent. That figure is considerably higher than was expected before the sanctions even become active, and it helps explain why oil prices are suddenly flirting with $80/barrel again after hovering around $50-$60 for so long. That price increase is probably cushioning the blow for Iran to some degree but it’s not enough to really make up for that big a decline in exports. Interestingly, it’s kicking in just in time for US voters to experience high gas prices before the midterms. So much winning.

But analysts Eric Brewer and Ariane Tabatabai argue that, in looking for ways to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, the Trump administration is isolating the US and increasing the chances that Iran will resume a full-scale nuclear power program:

In the months leading up to and since Trump’s announcement that he was pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal, many Iran watchers have taken to the pages of prominent foreign-policy outlets, including this one, to argue for or against the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal and provide recommendations for what the United States should do next. Advocates of the tough approach, such as Mark Dubowitz of the Federation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh, see economic sanctions and political isolation as critical to achieving a new, better deal or compelling the regime to change its policies by other means.

Although some experts, such as Dubowitz and his FDD colleague Richard Goldberg, have offered specific suggestions, there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on what sanctions and isolation should entail in practice. In addition, such observers have paid relatively little attention to how the United States should execute what will likely be a yearslong campaign of maximum pressure aimed at a new deal while mitigating the risks of Iranian nuclear advances and further provocations that such a strategy will likely produce. In essence, observers may be losing sight of the broader objective and thus offering some counterproductive ideas.


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