Middle East update: September 25 2018


Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, strongly suggested to state media on Tuesday that the Idlib province deescalation agreement reached between Russia and Turkey was merely phase one of a process that will see the province returned to the Syrian government’s control. Mekdad described the agreement as similar to the kind of deescalation agreements Damascus has reached with multiple rebel groups before eventually negotiating their surrender, a scenario that’s repeated itself several times over the course of the past year or so. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Turkey or the rebels in Idlib would agree with that assessment, and yet it’s unclear what other long-term resolution exists for the province. Is it to remain permanently a Turkish protectorate? I can’t imagine Bashar al-Assad going for that, nor Russia for that matter. The possibility of conflict in Idlib may have gone down a bit, but it’s definitely still there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that Damascus has transferred some 400 ISIS prisoners from Deir Ezzor to Idlib, possibly as part of a prisoner exchange under which ISIS will release the remaining Druze it took hostage in August. The Syrian government may also be simply looking to get those prisoners out of eastern Syria, and anyway releasing them in Idlib province offers the possible benefit that they’ll start attacking rebels there and sow a little chaos into the province.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu says that Israel will continue to strike targets in Syria no matter what fancy air defenses the Syrians get from Russia. Thank goodness–for a second there I was worried that Israel might start obeying international law or something crazy like that. Glad to see I was overreacting.


The Saudi-led coalition says it will open up “humanitarian corridors” to allow for the shipment of aid from Hudaydah to Sanaa. The coalition cut the main highway between Hudaydah and Sanaa earlier this month. The United Nations hasn’t weighed in on this plan yet and of course it remains to be seen how the Houthis will respond. The UN is trying to rush emergency food aid to places like Aslam, where people are reportedly eating leaves to try to stay alive. The fighting around Hudaydah has disrupted aid shipments and the war has debased the Yemeni rial and made food unaffordable, but blame also has to be placed on the Houthis, who have diverted aid away from places where it’s desperately needed. UN officials have warned that Yemen could be reaching a tipping point into full blown famine.

Speaking of the Houthis, a scathing Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday accuses the group of multiple serious human rights violations:

Since late 2014, when Houthi forces occupied the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of the Houthis and forces loyal to the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh carrying out arbitrary and abusive detention, as well as forced disappearances and torture. Yemeni rights groups have documented hundreds more cases. Human Rights Watch recently interviewed 14 former detainees and relatives of two other men detained or disappeared.

Houthi officials have treated detainees brutally, often amounting to torture, Human Rights Watch said. Former detainees described Houthi officers beating them with iron rods, wooden sticks, and assault rifles. Guards whipped prisoners, shackled them to walls, caned their feet, and threatened to rape them or their family members, former detainees said. Several people described being hung from a wall by their arms shackled behind them as one of the most painful techniques. In many cases, Houthi officials tortured them to obtain information or confessions.


The European Parliament’s Budget Committee said on Tuesday that it’s canceling and repurposing over $82 million in funds intended to help Turkey’s European Union accession process. The EU suspended the money last year over concerns about Turkey’s democracy and human rights situation.


An unidentified gunman shot and killed Basrawi protest leader Suad al-Ali on Tuesday. Her husband was wounded in the shooting, and at this point it’s unclear who the shooter was.

The New Arab is reporting that a Shiʿa militia has besieged the town of al-Mukhaysa, in Diyala province for almost three weeks and that food and medicine shortages there are reaching crisis levels. Residents of the area say the militia is attempting to displace them in an effort to change the demographics of the province.

With both Haider al-Abadi (the US pick) and Hadi al-Amiri (Iran’s pick) seemingly out of the running to be Iraq’s next prime minister, it seems Washington and Tehran are crowding one another out of Baghdad:

Since Iraq held national elections in May, White House envoy Brett McGurk and Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds force, have competed with each other to assemble support behind their favorites for parliament speaker, president and prime minister. McGurk and Soleimani have both spent much of the past few months meeting with powerful Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians in rival bids to build a parliamentary majority.

“That foreign influence has canceled itself out,” said Abbas Kadhim, an Iraqi historian and political analyst. “At the end of the day, the U.S. and Iran work against each other, and they both made each other fail in getting what they want.”


The Lebanese parliament on Tuesday ratified the 2014 Arms Control Treaty, which is supposed to set international rules around the conventional weapons sales and transfers. Legislators closely aligned with Hezbollah reportedly walked out before the vote–there are provisions in the treaty that could impact Hezbollah’s ability to acquire weapons, though the Lebanese government has tried to assure Hezbollah leaders that the ratification would not affect them.


US aid cuts and the Israeli blockade have left Gaza’s economy in “free fall,” according to a new World Bank report. Gaza’s economy shrunk by six percent in the first quarter of 2018 and unemployment now stands at over 50 percent. These economic struggles underpin much of the ongoing Gaza protest movement and promise to further destabilize the region if they’re not alleviated somehow, and there doesn’t seem to be any chance of that happening anytime soon.


The Bahraini government has reportedly charged 169 people with attempting to create a “Bahrain Hezbollah.” It’s unclear what evidence the Bahrainis have against these people but it claims at least some of them have traveled to Iran for training. If the Bahraini government allowed the country’s Shiʿa majority some avenue for peaceful political expression then maybe armed resistance wouldn’t seem so appealing an option, but it does not and so if these allegations are true they won’t be terribly surprising.


Al-Monitor’s Bryant Harris is reporting that a small group of Republican senators is holding up Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to unanimously pass a resolution that would call on the Trump administration to “prohibit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from enriching uranium or separating plutonium on its own territory” as part of any civilian nuclear assistance deal it strikes with Riyadh. It’s unclear who the senators are or why they’re objecting to the contents of the proposed resolution.

The intention would be to reach a deal with the Saudis along the lines of the “gold standard” for such deals, which is the 2009 agreement the US struck with the United Arab Emirates. That deal prohibits the UAE from uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. The Saudis have balked at those restrictions, in part because Iran has been enriching uranium under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (this ignores the fact that Iran was already enriching uranium and the JCPOA drastically limited what it was doing, but let’s not get bogged down in the details I guess). There are serious concerns that the Saudis would use a native enrichment program and/or plutonium reprocessing program (which Iran has agreed not to establish) to produce material for nuclear weapons.


As I noted yesterday, it’s UN General Assembly week. I’ll have more about Donald Trump’s Tuesday speech in a later post, but we should note here that he and Hassan Rouhani–who also spoke on Tuesday–traded insults in their remarks:

“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction,” Trump told the gathering in the green-marbled hall. “They do not respect their neighbors or borders or the sovereign rights of nations.”

Rouhani, addressing the assembled world leaders later, sharply criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, said he had “no need for a photo opportunity” with Trump and suggested the U.S. president’s pull back from global institutions was a character defect.

“Confronting multilateralism is not a sign of strength. Rather it is a symptom of the weakness of intellect – it betrays an inability in understanding a complex and interconnected world,” he said.

Rouhani’s remarks continued his tactic of painting the United States under Trump as a “rogue state,” the same sort of terminology the US often deploys against countries like Iran. He’s trying to isolate the US internationally, and it’s working to some degree (with Trump’s help), but the fact is that the US is ultimately too wealthy and too powerful to really be isolated. Iran will never be able to turn the US into a pariah state the way the US can with Iran.

Of far more importance than these speeches was the Monday evening meeting of the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal, plus the European Union. That session produced at least one tangible development–the announcement by EU foreign policy boss Federica Mogherini of plans to open up a “special purpose vehicle” that will allow Iran to pay for imports and be paid for exports (i.e., oil) without tripping US sanctions or running up against restrictions on Iran’s access to global financial networks.

This is an important step as Europe attempts to protect the nuclear deal and its commercial relationships from the Trump administration’s decision to violate the deal and reimpose sanctions, but ultimately it’s probably not enough to save the agreement. Again, the US is just too powerful to really be denied here. Oil analyst Sara Vakhshouri estimates that when US oil sanctions go back on line in November they’re likely to drive Iran’s oil exports down below the level they were at during the height of the Obama administration’s sanctions regime. That will likely drive oil prices up further, in turn mitigating the blow to Iran a bit, but not that much. The overall impact is going to be devastating on the Iranian economy and there really isn’t going to be much reason for the Iranians to remain party to the nuclear deal.

Finally, and at the risk of inundating you with Iran material, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen has highlights (?) from John Bolton and Mike Pompeo making their big appearances at Tuesday’s United Against Nuclear Iran gala:

“The Iran deal was the worst diplomatic debacle in American history,” national security adviser John Bolton told the UANI conference, held at a midtown New York hotel a few blocks from the UN, where the 73rd UN General Assembly high-level week is underway.

“The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over. … Let my message today be clear: We are watching, and we will come after you,” Bolton said in conclusion today, to applause.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got a standing ovation when UANI board chair and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman introduced him as a longtime ally in opposition to the 2015 nuclear accord, negotiated by Iran and six world powers, including the past US administration of President Barack Obama.

Pompeo ridiculed what he called the “charm offensive” by Iranian officials at the annual gathering of the world body, and took issue with the reputation as relative moderates that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hold in some quarters.


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