Middle East update: October 1 2018


A day after reports (well, one report) said it was quitting the demilitarized zone that Russian and Turkey established in Idlib province–making it the first rebel faction to do so–a spokesman for Faylaq al-Sham said on Monday that the group has done no such thing. In another development that augurs poorly for the success of that Russia-Turkey deescalation arrangement, the National Liberation Front–which is a Turkish proxy and therefore could be considered the most likely to support the agreement–is also raising serious concerns about the idea that Russian forces will be patrolling the demilitarized zone alongside Turkish forces. An NLF spokesman said late on Sunday that they’ve received assurances from Turkey that no Russian forces will be deployed in the buffer area. Which may very well be news to Russia, I don’t know.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebel councils in northern Aleppo province, where Turkey has established control and even seems to be taking steps to annex the place, are busy legislating travel bans to keep residents there from leaving to cross into Syrian government-held territory. The councils say the bans are intended to tighten security and that they’re making some humanitarian exceptions. “Security” here ostensibly means closing the borders of this region against terrorist groups (ISIS, primarily), but really means limiting the Syrian government’s ability to interact with residents and potentially turn them against the rebels.

US forces around Manbij have begun training Turkish soldiers in preparation for the start of joint US-Turkish patrols around that town. The joint patrols are part of the US-Turkey “roadmap” for Manbij and are intended to maintain separation between Turkish-aligned forces and the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which has withdrawn from Manbij itself but still controls part of the area around the town. It’s unclear if Turkey still thinks these patrols are going to enter Manbij itself but the Manbij Leadership Council has said that Turkish soldiers aren’t permitted to enter the town and must instead patrol on its outskirts.


A Saudi delegation was grilled on Monday by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva over the conduct of its war effort in Yemen. The Saudis graciously allowed as to “the existence of certain unintentional mistakes in a number of these operations,” but didn’t seem to be able to explain why those mistakes keep happening over and over again if they’re unintentional. The Saudi-led coalition’s results speak for themselves–either they’re deliberately targeting civilians or they’re so sloppy and/or incompetent that they shouldn’t be allowed to use fireworks, let alone actual weapons.


Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on Monday led several foreign ambassadors on a little tour of sites in Tripoli where the Israeli government claims Hezbollah is manufacturing precision missiles with Iranian help. Bassil accused the Israeli government of concocting this story “to justify another aggression” against Lebanon.


With Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties still completely at odds as to who should be Iraq’s next president, the Iraqi parliament on Monday postponed a scheduled vote on the office. Iraq can’t form a government until it has a president, but of course its parties don’t seem ready to do that either so the delay is no great loss. The Iraqi presidency has been held by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan since the US invasion, but the larger Kurdistan Democratic Party is staking a claim to it this time around.


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency announced on Monday that it’s pulling international staff out of Gaza due to safety concerns. Funding cuts have forced UNRWA to cut local jobs, which has caused some Gazans to react angrily toward the organization.


The Kuwaiti government has been on a book-banning trend of late, and it’s starting to reflect poorly on Kuwait’s international image:

No book, it seems, is too substantive or too insignificant to be banned in Kuwait. Recent targets of the government’s literary censors include an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David and a Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.”

David had no fig leaf, and the mermaid, alas, wore half a bikini.

“There are no hijab-wearing mermaids,” said Shamayel al-Sharikh, a Kuwaiti women’s activist. “The powers that be thought her dress was promiscuous. It’s humiliating.”

Kuwaitis like to think of their country as an enclave of intellectual freedom in the conservative Persian Gulf, a haven that once welcomed exiled Arab writers. But that self-image is becoming harder to sustain.


Saudi authorities have charged an economist named Essam al-Zamil with terrorism for, as far as anybody can tell, criticizing Mohammad bin Salman’s plan to sell off part of Aramco in an IPO. You know, terrorism.


The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired missiles on targets in eastern Syria against who they say were the masterminds of the September 22 terrorist attack in Ahvaz. The IRGC reportedly fired six missiles, but two of them failed shortly after launch. The other four do seem to have made it to their target, which was located north of al-Bukamal in eastern Syria, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. That’s the Hajin region, where the Syrian Democratic Forces are currently engaged in an offensive against ISIS remnants. This presumably suggests that the Iranians have decided that ISIS was behind the Ahvaz attack. The location of the strikes, as well as the accuracy of Iran’s missiles (which hasn’t as yet been determined) could have serious implications for the ongoing US military presence in eastern Syria.

Speaking of the US military presence in the region, Donald Trump has quietly been reducing it, which is making some normally supportive Iran hawks very nervous:

The apparent mismatch between estimates of the Iranian threat and the military’s posture in the region stems from factors that include U.S. strategic shifts and equipment limitations. The 2018 U.S. national security strategy deems big powers like China and Russia—not Iran—to be the greatest threats. At the same time, schedules for maintenance and upkeep have affected the availability of U.S. aircraft carriers, and the military lacks the ships and other equipment to thoroughly address every security threat.

U.S. officials said that they have enough military resources to counter Iran or others. But they acknowledged the aircraft carriers and the Patriot missile batteries also served as a show of force. Defense analysts cautioned against removing too many of these assets.

“The concern is the president looks a Twitter tiger,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based group critical of Iran. “If the rhetoric is not backed by a credible threat and a credible presence of American military power, then there is a danger that Iran will assess there is American mush, not American steel, behind the president’s tough rhetoric.”

As an aside, every time a news outlet describes Mark Dubowitz as anything other than “Iran war lobbyist” it’s lying to its audience. But making him out to be a “defense analyst” is really a new vista in terms of undeserved puffery. Constantly advocating for war with Iran does not make one an expert in defense issues.

The bright side for Dubowitz and the rest of the pro-war crowd is that the US-Iran relationship is back to being broken. At least for now. In an interview with The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested that US-Iran diplomacy could still work, provided the two countries build some foundation on which to hold talks:

“We live in a world of possibilities, so nothing is impossible, but we need to see,” he told me. “First of all, we’re not angry. Now, if it’s going to lead to resolution, you need to be able to build on what you already have, because, I mean, you remember the movie ‘50 First Dates,’ when you start all over again the following day. We can’t. This is impossible. You need to be able to have a relationship that is based on some foundations. And we have a document”—the nuclear deal—“that is a hundred and fifty pages long. It’s not a two-page document,” he said, referring to Trump’s agreement with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at their June summit.

So the door to diplomacy is still ajar? I asked.

“I’m not ruling out the prospect of talks provided the necessary conditions for talks, and that is reliability,” Zarif said. “Reliability is different from trust. Reliability is that when you sign something you are bound by it. Pacta sunt servanda is the old idiom, the basis of international relations.” (It translates, from Latin, as “treaties shall be complied with.”) “Otherwise everything will fall apart,” he told me. “We are waiting for some sense of realism.”

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