Middle East update: September 24 2018

It’s United Nations General Assembly Week, a magical time when heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers from all over the world gather in New York City to try to bullshit one another for a change instead of trying to bullshit the rest of us. I tend not to get too invested in “OMG did you hear what Andrej said about Aleksandar before lunch today? SO AWKWARD!”-type “news,” so this week often winds up being a welcome slow period around here. At least it is today, as I bring you this early/shortened update so that I can attend to some other things.


Marinate in this tweet for just a few minutes. Let its essence wash over you like an ocean wave:

Bolton’s one redeeming feature has always been that he’s absolutely prepared to say all the quiet parts out loud.

Today’s Syrian news, such as it is, mostly revolves around a Russian announcement that it’s preparing to give/sell its advanced (though not most advanced) S-300 air defense systems to Syria. These new weapons should be accurate and reliable enough to avoid any future mishaps like the one last week that brought down a Russian reconnaissance aircraft and briefly had people sweating about escalation. So I think we can all agree this is a welcome develo-

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that supplying advanced weapon systems to “irresponsible players” would increase dangers in the region, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

Well OK, but surely we can at least agree tha-

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Monday that Russian plans to supply Syria with an S-300 missile system would be a “significant escalation” by Moscow and that he hopes it will reconsider.

Oh, right. See, not only will Syria be able to shoot down fewer Russian planes with these new systems, but they’ll probably be able to shoot down more Israeli planes, which would contradict longstanding US and Israeli policy that Israel should be allowed to bomb whatever in the hell it feels like bombing whenever in the hell it fells like bombing it. And not for nothing, but these new systems might make the US think twice about any new airstrikes against Syrian government targets as well.


The renewed coalition offensive against Hudaydah is reportedly taking a massive civilian toll:

The devastating offensive on Yemen’s Hodeida has seen a “dramatic increase” in the number of civilians killed and maimed.

Save the Children said that from June to August, since the Saudi Arabia-led coalition began its attack on the rebel-held Red Sea port, at least 349 people have been killed.

The charity, using figures from monitoring group Armed Location and Event Data (ACLED), compared the numbers to the first five months of the year, January-May, when there was an average of 44 civilian casualties every month.

The number jumped to a monthly average of 116, an increase of 164 percent after the Saudi-led assault began.

Lurking in the background is the possibility of full-on famine, which the United Nations says could come on very suddenly. Any military activity that impedes aid shipments via Hudaydah’s seaport will increase the chances of a collapse in Yemen’s precarious food security.


The Iraqi military says its forces killed eight ISIS fighters overnight in two airstrikes–one in Diyala province and the other in Saladin province.

Meanwhile, a new Airwars report to the British parliament castigates the UK government for its insulting claim that the Royal Air Force’s nearly 1000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have produced a total of zero civilian casualties:

Airwars is blunt in its own submission. While welcoming overall UK transparency, it challenges the MoD’s narrative of an antiseptic airwar in Iraq in Syria: “It is the view of Airwars that the Ministry of Defence’s claim of zero civilian harm from its actions at Mosul and Raqqa represents a statistical impossibility given the intensity of fighting, the extensive use of explosive weapons, and the significant civilian populations known to have been trapped in both cities,” the report notes.

In both battles Airwars has in total identified 413 alleged civilian harm events where British involvement is in theory possible based on public reporting of strikes: 176 of these were in Raqqa and 237 in Mosul. For the majority of these cases the UK’s position is still unestablished. Some 40 events have however been directly referred to the Ministry of Defence for assessment. In 39 of these cases the MoD rejected any involvement, while one case remains open.


Israeli soldiers shot and killed another Palestinian man near the Gaza fence line on Monday.

Al-Monitor’s Shlomi Eldar reports that Israel’s controversial new nationality law, which the Israeli government insists does not enshrine into law preferential treatment for Jewish Israelis over Arab and Druze Israelis, is already leading to explicitly preferential treatment for Jewish Israelis in the legal system:

In the verdict, decided Sept. 17 against Hamas, Drori analyzed, among other things, the question of punitive damages and noted the addition of the nationality law to the Israeli law book and Clause 6a in particular: “The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Judaism or their citizenship.”

The judge wondered how this clause could be interpreted and how it could contribute to the verdict regarding punitive damages. He also took into account the charter of Hamas and its clauses against Jews and the Jewish state, writing: “According to the written formulation … of the Hamas charter, and no less, as it acts in practice, one can say, without exaggeration, that the Jewish people, all the more so when they are in Israel, are among those who are in trouble because of their Judaism.”

He further wrote, “I am aware that the said basic [nationality] law was legislated only two months ago, while the attack happened 20 years ago. However, a Supreme Court decision has determined, and repeatedly determined, that basic laws have interpretive application also on laws that preceded them.”

To his critics, who he anticipated would object to his verdict, he asked as well as answered: “Is the Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People, merely declarative? I don’t believe so. It is surely assumed that the Knesset, as the legislative branch, when it produced a basic law, intended that it may be used in the courts … thus, as the injured party is one of the ‘Jewish people [or one of its] citizens who are in trouble because of their Judaism or their citizenship,’ the scale will tip toward punitive damages, among other things, by force of the Nationality Law.”


While Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of paying the perpetrators of this weekend’s terrorist attack in Ahvaz, Iranian authorities reported Monday that they’ve arrested “a large part of the network” that carried out the attack (that’s 22 people, according to Iranian state media). They haven’t gone into detail about whether the attackers were Ahvazi militants or ISIS, or both because to be fair that’s possible too.

The International Crisis Group has put together an in-depth look at how the Ahvaz attack has heightened tensions in the Middle East:

An attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on 22 September, which killed 29 people, dangerously raised tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Iran accused a local insurgent group (which claimed responsibility), but also pointed to what it said were the group’s enablers in the Gulf and in Washington. The U.S. State Department issued a muted condemnation while proceeding with its otherwise openly hostile rhetoric toward Tehran. And key Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, stayed mostly silent, failing to condemn the attack or express sorrow for its victims. A tragedy can create opportunities for diplomacy and eventually a new accommodation, but instead, after Ahvaz, all sides are feeding the risk of further escalation.

While the UNGA is going on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton will be co-headlining an annual event in New York sponsored by a group called United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI). Thanks to some great investigative work by journalist Eli Clifton, he and I have written a piece at LobeLog that tries to connect some dots about who/what is behind UANI and it gets to some wild places:

The Trump administration insists that the goal of its “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran is not to effect regime change but rather to change the “behavior” of the Iranian government. If that’s the case, then the decision to send two senior foreign policy officials to this UANI event is puzzling. According to the organization’s guest list, in attendance will be virtually every prominent official both in the United States and overseas who has pushed for a military confrontation with Iran—a veritable who’s who of warmongers.

Beyond that, the decision to send Pompeo and Bolton to this event may be deeply inappropriate. UANI’s murky financial ties include links to questionable businessmen and shadowy foreign actors with possible ties to the massive 1MDB corruption scandal in Malaysia under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.


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