Middle East update: September 21 2018


One little-mentioned aspect of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ assault on Hajin is that there’s a reasonable chance–assuming he’s still alive–that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is in that area somewhere, and the SDF might come across him. Baghdadi does in fact seem to still be alive, as he or at least somebody who sounds like him is still dropping new tracks, and at this point there aren’t that many places he could be in anything resembling safety. Theories have him somewhere around Hajin, perhaps periodically crossing into Iraq around the town of Baaj, likely always moving around with a small retinue and only with a few close advisers having any knowledge of his whereabouts. Baghdadi being just the one guy (plus maybe four or five bodyguards), there’s still a pretty good chance he’ll be able to slip past the SDF and find his way to some underground ISIS location, but this is probably the best chance anybody has had to finally nab the guy.

Turkish and Russian negotiators have reportedly agreed on the borders of the demilitarized zone they plan on setting up in Idlib. So that’s one detail out of the way, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done if the deescalation deal these two countries have made is actually going to stick. Huge obstacles remain–perhaps most especially, as Trinity University professor David Lesch writes, is the opposition of the Syrian government:

I can’t imagine Assad likes this deal at all, as it consecrates Turkey’s position of influence in the north. He wanted to pummel Idlib and gain more territorial control over his country, but his depleted forces can’t do it without substantial Russian help.  He has to go with the Russian diplomatic game right now, perhaps waiting until it might inevitably breakdown—or until the next UN General Assembly session is over in September, when international diplomacy focuses elsewhere while he incrementally picks away at the edges of Idlib both militarily and through reconciliation agreements. Maybe this is also what the Russians have in mind. They too would like nothing better than to eliminate jihadists in Idlib, a number of whom are Chechen and from other areas in Russia who have caused problems for Moscow in the past.  They want to dig the graves of these hardened jihadists in Syria rather than have them return to Russia.

Speaking of Turkey, its government also announced on Friday that joint Turkish-US military patrols are set to get underway “very soon” in the town of Manbij. Ankara and Washington agreed to joint patrols in June as part of an overall plan to defuse tensions in northern Syria by opening up some space between territory controlled by Turkey and territory controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia.


There’s a fight brewing at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading an effort by a group of Arab countries to shut down the UN’s investigation into human rights violations in Yemen. Another group of mostly European countries is pushing a competing resolution that would extend the investigation for at least another year. The Saudis prefer a Yemeni government-led effort to whitewash investigate war crimes and other rights violations to the current international effort, but acquiesced to the international investigation last year amid a fair amount of international pressure.

While the coalition continues to work to defeat the Houthis one school bus at a time, the parts of Yemen they’ve retaken are operating more as independent fiefdoms rather than a coherent nation:

The fragmentation of Yemen has highlighted the challenges facing the policy of the United States, which has strongly supported the internationally recognized central government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi as he tries to reunify the country.

But Hadi, who has spent most of the conflict exiled in Saudi Arabia after his government was ousted by a rebel group known as the Houthis, is widely seen — including by American officials — as too weak and unpopular to accomplish that task. His forces have been unable to dislodge the rebels or even decisively assert his authority in the areas his government nominally controls.

The United States has been concerned that Yemen’s disarray will empower Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula, one of the extremist group’s most dangerous franchises.

“Yemen, as a state, has all but ceased to exist,” a United Nations expert panel wrote earlier this year. “Instead of a single State there are warring statelets, and no one side has either the political support or the military strength to reunite the country or achieve victory on the battlefield.”

This isn’t even factoring in the southern secessionist movement that’s played such a big role in the coalition’s ground forces. The idea of a “postwar” Yemen at this point seems almost fanciful. When the current war finally ends there are at least a couple of new wars on deck waiting to kick off.


Al-Monitor’s Kadri Gursel says that Turkish officials are starting to talk openly about the country’s “brain drain.” Emigration from Turkey was up 42.5 percent last year, with over 42 percent of migrants in the 25-34 age range and over 57 percent of them coming from major urban areas. A slowing economy is contributing to the problem, but the biggest factor is probably Turkey’s ongoing slide into one-man rule and the repression that’s entailed:

Many of those leaving Turkey belong to the young generation that became politicized during the mass anti-government protests in Turkey in the summer of 2013, which came to be known historically as the “Gezi resistance.” The protest movement was triggered by a plan to build a shopping mall in the place of Gezi Park on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, replicating Ottoman barracks that stood there until 1940. As earth-moving machines moved in, police clamped down on a small group of environmentalists camping in the park, igniting street demonstrations across the country for weeks. The well-educated young professionals who took to the streets spontaneously in the early days of the protests came to be known as the “Gezi generation.”

Sercan Celebi, a leading founder of Vote and Beyond — a Gezi-inspired civic initiative dedicated to election integrity — described a sense of despair among the Gezi generation. “Those who took to the streets with various motivations during the Gezi protests are now leaving the country because they are left with no other democratic channel to display their indignation. Since the street is no longer an alternative, abroad has become ‘the street,’” Celebi told Al-Monitor.


Deakin University’s Benjamin Isakhan and Peter Mulherin talk about one of the underlying causes for the recent spate of protests in Basra:

The protesters’ demands have been relatively simple: water, electricity, employment and an end to Iraq’s endemic political corruption.

The protesters and their representatives have also frequently called on Baghdad to allow Basra increased degrees of economic and political independence from the central state. Their goal is to take power away from the bureaucratic chaos of the capital and put it back in the hands of Basrans.

But Basra’s recent calls for autonomy are far from new. They are instead the latest stage in a 15-year struggle that dates back to the earliest days that followed the U.S.-led intervention of 2003.


Brazilian police announced on Friday that they’ve arrested Assad Ahmad Barakat, an alleged “financier” for Hezbollah. Barakat is apparently wanted for identity theft in Paraguay, hence his arrest, and he’s also under suspicion of money laundering in Argentina.


Israeli forces killed at least one Palestinian when they opened fire on Friday’s weekly protest at the Gaza fence line. That’s at least 183 people killed by the Israelis since these protests started in March.


Alex Emmons and Lee Fang have a real whopper of an addendum to that Wall Street Journal report about Mike Pompeo’s decision to certify the Saudi campaign in Yemen so as not to jeopardize US arms sales. Most of Pompeo’s staff opposed Pompeo’s decision, save one lone soul with the courage of a lion and major ties to the defense industry:

Those concerns, however, were overruled after Pompeo discussed the matter with the State Department’s legislative affairs team. The legislative affairs staff, according to the Wall Street Journal, argued that restricting U.S. support would endanger billions of dollars in future weapons sales, including a massive sale of precision-guided munitions between Raytheon, a U.S. weapons manufacturer, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

That staff — the legislative affairs team at the State Department — is led by a former Raytheon lobbyist.

Before his presidential appointment last June, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Charles Faulkner was paid handsomely by Raytheon to lobby lawmakers on defense procurement issues, ethics records show.

It’s cliche at this point, but it’s still occasionally worth remembering that this is the president who told us he was going to drain the DC swamp.


The Iranian military is conducting more military exercises in the Persian Gulf this weekend as “a show of strength,” but also somehow as “a message of peace and friendship for friendly and neighboring countries.” Not quite sure how that works but OK.

The remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal will meet in New York on Monday evening, at which time presumably Iran will complain that it isn’t seeing enough of a benefit from the deal since the US withdrew from it, and the other parties will try to convince Iran that they’re doing the best they can and that anyway it would still be worse for Iran to quit the accord. All of these things are probably true to one degree or another.

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