Middle East update: September 20 2018

Best wishes to any readers who are observing Ashura.


Unsurprisingly, Turkish and Russian officials explained to the United Nations Syria task force on Thursday that they’re still putting together all the details of their big plan to avoid a battle in Idlib province or, at least, to delay one for a few weeks. On the plus side, the head of Israel’s air force visited Moscow on Thursday to go over the details of that Russian plane that was shot down, probably by Syrian air defenses responding to an Israeli missile strike, over Latakia province on Monday. The Israelis promised to improve their deconfliction processes with Russia, which basically means either giving Russia more advance warning or being more cognizant of Russian assets in the vicinity of a strike, or both.

One thing that makes an Idlib offensive seem almost unavoidable regardless of whatever deal Russia and Turkey might reach is Ankara’s continued attempt to stealth annex northern Aleppo province:

In recent months Turkey has stepped up its role in helping to administer northern Syrian border territories it conquered from the Islamic State group and Syrian Kurds to a degree which demonstrates that it has no intention of withdrawing anytime soon.

This summer, Turkey spearheaded some very ambitious projects in the territories it conquered in Operation Euphrates Shield – which began on August 24, 2016 and ended on March 29 the following year – particularly in the city of Al-Bab, large parts of which were destroyed in the three-month urban battle between Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen and IS.

Turkey has also built a new paved road between Al-Bab and the Turkish town of Elbeyli, and funded the construction of a hospital. It is establishing a new university campus in Al-Bab and planning to link the Syrian city to Turkey’s power grid.

The Syrian government isn’t just going to let northern Aleppo go. And even if a conflict in Idlib can somehow be avoided, it’s hard to see how the same can be true in northern Aleppo unless Turkey withdraws–which it doesn’t seem interested in doing.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces–Turkey’s justification for annexing northern Aleppo province–says it’s not interested in holding ISIS prisoners indefinitely. At some point it expects the countries whence these fine folks came to take them back. Or else it’s implied it might start executing them. That’s an outcome with which I bet quite a few of those home countries would be just fine. While we’re on this topic, the SDF took another Deir Ezzor province town from ISIS on Thursday.


The leader of the southern Yemen separatist movement, which at the moment is fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition, says that the coalition will not halt its renewed attack on Hudaydah until the Houthis have been driven out and the city has been taken. His comments to Reuters provide a useful insight into the coalition’s “you can’t make an omelet”-style thinking:

“The civilian lives are very precious and all the coalition’s operations in the air and sea are taking into consideration the civilian casualties, but the military operation has begun and there will be no going back,” Zubaidi told Reuters in an interview in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi.

“In all the wars across the world, there is always humanitarian suffering. But we are looking beyond the liberation of Hodeidah which will be in the interests of the city’s population,” said Zubaidi. “The battle of Hodeidah is continuing and the war is not over.”


Paul Pillar argues that the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran is causing it to botch its relationship with Iraq:

The Trump administration, viewing Iraq through its narrow anti-Iran lens, sees the country as a political playing field where America’s man in Baghdad, special envoy Brett McGurk, has the job of keeping U.S.-backed leaders in power and keeping anyone friendly to Iran out of power. The approach is reminiscent of how, under the previous U.S. administration, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland saw it as her job to pick leaders of Ukraine. The anti-Iran dimension of U.S. policy shows itself as well in the Trump White House’s effort to blame Iran for anything untoward that happens in Iraq—including some rounds that landed recently near a couple of U.S. diplomatic buildings—while ignoring the fact that it was an Iranian consulate, not a U.S. one, that got destroyed in the latest violence.

In a pattern that harks back to the making of the 2003 war—in which the war-makers listened to a few exiles who had little following inside Iraq—U.S. policy does not seem to be paying much attention to what most Iraqis want. What they chiefly want involves the sorts of things that motivated the protesters in Basra, such as clean water, reliable electricity, and uncorrupt use of the southern region’s oil wealth.


Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah used his Ashura speech to let the world know that Israel’s efforts to interdict weapons shipments through Syria haven’t had the desired effect:

“I tell (Israel) no matter what it did to cut the route, it is over. It has already been achieved,” he said, adding that Hezbollah “now possesses precision missiles and non-precision and weapons capabilities.”

Nasrallah was speaking during a traditional televised speech at the end of Ashoura, a top religious holy day for Shiite Muslims that lasts for ten days.

He told supporters to be confident and Israelis to be concerned of Hezbollah’s capabilities.

Speaking of Hezbollah, Juan Cole takes issue with the State Department’s 2017 terrorism report. That report once again made Iran out to be the world’s terrorism mastermind mostly because of its support for Hezbollah, which as Cole points out has been, for a supposed terrorist organization, doing a lot of counterterrorism work lately:

The problem with the State Department report is that it is highly partisan and ideological, which somewhat undermines its credibility.

One of the biggest flaws is unwillingness to give Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbullah any credit at all for their role in defeating Salafi extremists.

Iran and Shiite militias it backed were crucial to the defeat of ISIL in Iraq, and it seems clear that despite denials, the US military de facto cooperated with them on occasion. Iran’s positive role in helping roll back Salafi extremism and tamp down on terrorism is not mentioned by the report. But if it is true that the partial demise of ISIL is responsible for a fall in terrorist attacks by a quarter, then France, for instance, owes a great debt of gratitude to Iran and Hizbullah and other Shiite militias.

As Cole notes, Hezbollah has also been part of the operation to drive ISIS out of Lebanon. Meanwhile the Saudis and the UAE are cutting deals with al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen, and not only is that absent from the report, but instead we hear that both countries are actively working to “counter” al-Qaeda.


According to Al Jazeera, so bear that in mind, Palestinians living in Jordan say that Saudi authorities are denying them visas to perform pilgrimages to Mecca:


Israeli and Iranian diplomats traded nuclear-related barbs at the United Nations on Thursday. Iran’s UN ambassador, Gholamali Khoshrou, demanded that the UN “take firms actions to eliminate” Israel’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge nuclear weapons stockpile. Meanwhile the Israelis, who have nuclear weapons and helped apartheid South Africa develop them, accused Iran of posing a proliferation risk.

BuzzFeed is reporting on a new source of pro-Israel social media spam:

The campaign, which targeted dozens of prominent international outlets, was organized through Act.IL, a smartphone app and website developed by former Israeli intelligence officers in collaboration with the Israeli government, and with financial backing from conservative American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Act.IL is a tool in the information war being waged over public perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies have become increasingly alert to manipulation campaigns on their platforms, Act.IL has managed to fly under the radar thanks to an army of thousands of volunteers who post comments and images, and follow commands to like or criticize other online content.

“This is a unique case of advanced digital political astroturfing,” said Katie Joseff, research manager of the Digital Intelligence Laboratory at the Institute for the Future, a think tank that studies the social impact of technology.


The German government is pushing ahead with arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Jordan and Qatar, even though it pledged in January that it would no longer sell weapons to active combatants in Yemen. And look, I get that Yemenis are having a rough time, but have you seen the balance sheets Germany’s arms dealers are facing? Talk about a crime against humanity!

Before you come down too hard on Germany, I think it’s worth pointing out that they learned how to ignore Saudi war crimes so as not to queer any major arms deals by watching us:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed continued U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen over the objections of staff members after being warned that a cutoff could jeopardize $2 billion in weapons sales to America’s Gulf allies, according to a classified memo and people familiar with the decision.

The move has fueled rising outrage in Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to cut off American military aid for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their three-year-old war against Iran-backed fighters in Yemen. More than 16,700 civilians have been killed or injured in Yemen, according to the United Nations, which says the Gulf nation is home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The U.S. is backing the Gulf allies in Yemen, where the Trump administration is working to contain Iran’s allies and al Qaeda militants.

Mr. Pompeo overruled concerns from most of the State Department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen. Those who objected included specialists in the region and in military affairs. He sided with his legislative affairs team after they argued that suspending support could undercut plans to sell more than 120,000 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a classified State Department memo and people familiar with the debate.


According to Bloomberg, Volkswagen has decided to scrap plans to sell cars in Iran due to the threat of US sanctions. The car maker hasn’t confirmed this report but simply says that it “complies with all applicable national and international laws and export regulations,” which isn’t exactly a denial either. They’ll be the latest in a long list of European firms eliminating potential operations in Iran in the face of the sanctions.

State Department Iran envoy Brian Hook told what I’m sure was a fair and balanced audience at the Hudson Institute on Wednesday that the Trump administration is “ready to negotiate” a comprehensive treaty with Iran. He belittled the nuclear deal, calling it a “personal deal between two governments,” which is an absolutely incoherent phrase on top of being a weird way to describe a multilateral agreement that was then subject to a UN Security Council vote.

The Iranians, understandably, have responded that they see no reason to negotiate with a government that obviously can’t be trusted to abide by its agreements, which is part of the reason why abrogating the nuclear deal was so absurdly self-defeating. If Trump’s goal was to negotiate a better deal, then completely removing any semblance of good faith from the US-Iran relationship was a bad way to get there. If, on the other hand, his goal was to put everybody back on the path to war, then mission accomplished.

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