Middle East update: September 27 2018


The Syrian government is now basically daring Israel to conduct airstrikes once Russia has delivered its promised S-300 air defense systems to Damascus, which is supposed to happen within the next two weeks. I’m sure this will work out well. On a more positive note, the Israeli government says it’s prepared to reopen its border crossing with Syria now that the Syrian military has regained control of its side of the Golan.

So they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.

The “Manbij Legislative Council” is refuting Turkish claims that joint US-Turkish patrols are about to begin in that town. Its co-chair, Farouk al-Mashi, told a Kurdish news outlet that control of the town remains in the MLC’s hands and that Turkish soldiers will not be permitted to enter the town itself. Ankara says that those patrols are part of the roadmap it worked out with the US for Manbij earlier this year, but the US has apparently interpreted that roadmap as establishing joint patrols outside of Manbij, in the area between Turkish- and Kurdish-controlled territory.

On the US end of things, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman says that the White House is undercutting the Pentagon’s legal and strategic justification for keeping US forces in Syria:

In a move that strayed squarely onto Defense Department turf, Bolton declared that the United States will keep a military presence in Syria as long as Iran has forces there. This put him at odds with the Pentagon’s long-standing assertion that the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops are in Syria for one purpose: to ensure the lasting defeat of Islamic State militants.

Mattis now must walk a fine line between the administration’s increasingly hostile rhetoric against Iran, including its regional ambitions, and concerns about U.S. mission creep in Syria.

In reality, Mattis and Bolton likely share similar concerns about Iran, experts say. But the defense secretary has reason to present a more cautious front in Syria. For one thing, lawmakers in Congress are balking at what they see as an illegal expansion of the U.S. mission in Syria, which is legally predicated on a fight against nonstate militant groups, not a country like Iran. At the same time, on the ground, escalation poses a very real risk to U.S. troops from Iranian proxies, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Russian forces.

The idea is to park US soldiers in eastern Syria ostensibly because of ISIS and then rely on their inherent right to self-defense to justify any possible confrontation with Iranian or Iranian-aligned forces. But that goes out the window when you have top administration officials saying the quiet parts out loud and it’s the kind of thing that gets people in Congress asking uncomfortable questions.


At LobeLog, energy analysts Rauf Mammadov and Theodore Karasik look at what the disintegration of Yemen may do to the country’s small but important oil industry:

Yemen is fracturing into microstates. Localism is driving politics in the country more than ever before. Unanswered questions about who in Yemen will benefit from the local production of oil in southern Yemen will heavily influence the future of the country, potentially as a failed state where local notables take charge of politics.

Although Yemen’s oil wealth has never compared to that of the rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the impoverished Arabian country’s oil sector has been important to the overall economy. Oil exploration stalled after the civil war in 1994 that threatened Yemen’s unity. Unified Yemen never recovered from the mass exodus of larger international oil corporations. The government had to resort to agreements with smaller to mid-size oil companies. This added an extra layer of complexity into Yemen’s already complex political and geographical terrain, where corporations along with different tribal regions had to negotiate with the central government in Sana‘a. This model was incompatible with the structure of Yemen’s government where power was concentrated in the North.


The European Court of Justice on Thursday rejected a complaint from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s lawyers that their client has been mistreated by the Turkish government. Öcalan has been in prison since 1999.


Iraqi Kurds are voting this weekend in their Kurdistan regional parliamentary election. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are almost certain to maintain their collective hold on power but there’s a chance the KDP might strengthen its position at the PUK’s expense. Above all the election is expected to be marked by low turnout among a Kurdish electorate that is still reeling from last year’s failed independence effort and frustrated by the KDP-PUK duopoly.


The Israeli military on Thursday produced satellite photos of Beirut that it claims show “secret sites to convert inaccurate projectiles into precision-guided missiles” that have been built by Hezbollah. The Israelis claim that Iran, naturally, is aiding Hezbollah in this effort.


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency says it received $118 million in pledges on Thursday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, leaving it facing only a $68 million shortfall in funding for the year. That’s fairly incredible given that UNRWA had to make up around $300 million when the Trump administration decided to cut and then eliminate its support.

Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen covers Mahmoud Abbas’s UN General Assembly speech, in which he made his case against the Trump administration as an arbiter in the Israel-Palestine conflict quite clear:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations today that he and his team tried for a year to engage the Donald Trump administration on the peace process only to have their views rejected in decision after decision. They now are looking to the international community to preserve a two-state solution, Abbas said, bypassing the Trump administration.

“We have always fully and positively engaged with the various initiatives of the international community that have aimed at achieving a peaceful solution between us and the Israelis,” Abbas told the UN General Assembly. “We continued on this path with the administration of President Trump from the start of his tenure, with the same positive engagement, and I have met with him numerous times.”

Abbas said, “We awaited his peace initiative with utmost patience, but were shocked by decisions and actions he undertook that completely contradict the role and commitment of the United States toward the peace process.”


The Egyptian military has been arming Bedouin tribes in the Sinai as part of its effort to combat ISIS there:

In a switch from the past, the military has begun arming Bedouin tribesmen like Abu-Sefira and having them patrol in operations against the IS militants deep in the peninsula’s interior, where their local knowledge gives them an advantage, Abu-Sefira and other Bedouin say.

“We have to do it, it’s our duty to make the people feel safe from the terrorists who were killing us,” Abu-Sefira told The Associated Press by telephone from a checkpoint he was manning along with a dozen other men from the area, near the Halal mountains where the IS affiliate has been known to stockpile weapons and equipment.

The military has not publicly acknowledged arming and using the Bedouin as a fighting force, saying only that they cooperate and provide intelligence. In the past, security forces have been wary of giving weapons to the Bedouin, given the long history of tensions with the tribesmen. The shift appears to be an attempt to bring the Sinai population more onto the government’s side in the fight.

The effort seems to be working, as ISIS has reportedly been cleared out of large parts of the Sinai in recent months. But the government is going to have to manage what happens next very carefully to avoid confrontations with, or among, those tribes once ISIS is no longer in the picture.


Several Gulf Arab states are reportedly preparing a bailout package for Bahrain:

The assistance would help Bahrain meet its financing needs over the period while it carries out fiscal reforms, the people said on condition of anonymity. The amount under negotiation is $10 billion, though a final agreement has yet to be reached, one of the people said.

The deal is taking shape after months of negotiations over the measures Bahrain would take to receive support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The package may include deposits and low-interest loans, one of the people said.

The funds would help avert a devaluation that investors fear could force other countries in the region to follow suit. They’ll also allow Bahrain, a close Saudi and U.S. ally, to borrow from international debt markets at cheaper interest rates.

The package will include austerity requirements for the Bahraini government, both in spending cuts and tax increases.


Three Saudi men were killed allegedly resisting arrest on Wednesday in the kingdom’s Qatif governate. Qatif is a predominantly Shiʿa province and these three men were suspected of involvement in “terrorism,” which in this case could mean anything from actual militancy to agitating to end the systemic Saudi repression of its Shiʿa minority.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent his UNGA speech talking about–what else–Iran. Waving around a satellite image of downtown Tehran, Netanyahu claimed to reveal the site of an alleged secret Iranian nuclear storage facility connected to the nuclear weapons program that even Israel’s own intelligence agency thinks doesn’t exist but that Netanyahu nevertheless keeps flogging. He called on the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate the site, but didn’t really offer any justification for doing so and couldn’t even say what material Iran has supposedly been storing there. US intelligence officials say the facility he was talking about was already known to the West and contains nuclear records and archives, not actual nuclear material.

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